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Dems digest new Israel push from Biden

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News the Biden administration is continuing with arms transfers to Israel won a tentative quick seal of approval from many in the House Democratic conference, even as members across the spectrum called for greater clarity on the administration’s overall approach to the ongoing conflict.

Signs of divisions within the caucus were nevertheless apparent over the latest weapons shipment plans Tuesday night and came shortly before Republicans prepared to try and divide the conference over the president’s pledge to withhold heavy bombs from the key ally.

“I’m not going to second-guess every detail of that [decision on arms transfers] — that the president and people who know a lot more than me have to decide,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), a progressive, told POLITICO.

“If the president and the United States drew a red line at Rafah, then it’s really incredibly important that we do not equip the Netanyahu government with the tools and weapons to cross our own red line,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “In terms of a more cohesive approach, I think it’s important.”

Many Democrats were quick to note they didn’t know the details of the latest arms package, details of which first emerged in The Wall Street Journal. The bulk of progressive Democrats have argued for restrictions on weapons transfers to pressure Israel to change its conduct in the war, while staunch pro-Israel advocates have argued against any limits on military aid.

The reports of new shipments of certain military aid comes hours before the chamber is slated to deliver a pointed rebuke to the Biden administration’s plan to withhold heavy bombs from the key U.S. ally, a vote that members believe could see dozens of Democratic defections.

Some Democrats inclined to support the GOP-led legislation also called for greater clarity from the White House about the overarching strategy in the conflict.

“What would be really helpful is clarity from the White House and the president as to our strategic priorities, as it relates to ending this war,” said Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio), a frontline member who’s said he’ll support the GOP legislation up for a vote this week.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said in a brief interview she was undecided on whether she planned to support the Republican legislation that would move the weapons package but had concerns about the Biden administration sharing its defense plans to the public.

“These are not the kind of discussions and strategies that need to be playing out publicly, because there are so many different kinds of decisions — a lot of moving parts —  but it was still concerning that [Biden] made that announcement last week,” she said. “But with the addition of this billion dollars, that makes it very clear that [withholding the weapons package] is just one small component of the broader strategy.”

A spokesperson for Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Another member of Democratic leadership, Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado, declined comment.

A White House official referred questions about specific weapons packages to the State Department, but confirmed that “arms transfers are continuing as scheduled.” A State Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The new arms shipment comes as the White House has sought to tamp down support for the GOP-led bill that would prohibit Biden from withholding military aid to Israel. Biden officials spent Tuesday whipping against the bill, the White House official said, amid worries that many lawmakers were misinterpreting the extent of the administration’s actions.

“The legislation assumes as a baseline that the administration is pausing more weapons shipments than just one,” said the official, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal thinking. “That’s just not the case.”

In calls to lawmakers and aides, the White House has argued that the legislation amounts to little more than a political ploy aimed at dividing the Democratic Party. Biden officials have also reiterated that the administration remains steadfastly in support of Israel’s defense, and that its decision to hold up a shipment of bombs last week was rooted solely in an effort to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza.

The White House typically steers clear of getting deeply involved in internal debates among Hill Democrats. But the decision to take an early public stance against the legislation represented the heightened concern within the administration that many lawmakers would support the bill — and deliver an implicit rebuke of Biden’s decision-making — without first fully understanding the specifics of its fast-evolving Middle East strategy.

That’s not to say those Democrats who have been critical of the administration’s approach to the conflict between Israel and Gaza were pleased to hear weapons shipments were continuing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is not big on receiving messages,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “They have the right to defend themselves. They have the right to go after Hamas, but they don’t have the right to do it in any manner they see fit when they’re using our resources.”

Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.