Bi-partisan budget bill kills funding to feed starving people of Gaza
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind. Vt., described as a "starvation caucus," his fellow lawmakers who voted for a budget bill that cuts funds to feed the people of Gaza. | Jose Luis Magana/AP

WASHINGTON—The monster money bill which Congress will consider—and likely pass—on March 22 cuts off U.S. cash for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the organization running the humanitarian aid operation that sends food, water, and medicine to the besieged people of Gaza.

And that Republican-engineered aid elimination has drawn flak from Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., a member of “the Squad,” who says he will defect from the party position and vote against the legislation.

Jones’s decision to take a hike may be important: The House’s ruling Republicans are so fractured that Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., counts on Democratic votes to push the money bill over the finish line.

The Republicans, who historically have been leery of the UN and its agencies anyway—and whose god, Donald Trump, wants to end U.S. commitments abroad–cut off the aid after allegations surfaced that a dozen of the relief agency’s 1.300 workers were aiding Hamas when it invaded Israel last October. The Democratic Biden administration believes those Israeli claims, too.

The cutoff upsets Jones and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. They see an aid cutoff as condoning the worst slaughter of innocent civilians in this century. Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., like the two House members, also wants an immediate ceasefire in the Israeli rampage against Gazans. But he wants no preconditions, such as freeing hostages.

Claiming to support a ceasefire, as the U.S. resolution that failed today at the UN did, but putting conditions on it that hostages be released is not enough, Murphy said. “The mass killing has to stop unconditionally,” the senator declared yesterday so that relief in the form of food, medicine, and massive amounts of medical care can be provided to relieve the suffering.

Jones was even more blunt, insisting that Democrats must not agree to cutting off the aid to the UN. “That’s some b—s— if we are not funding the UNRWA,” Jones tweeted. The lack of money to aid the Gazans is “evil” and “unacceptable.”

The aid cutoff, under the terms of the new budget bill backed by Republicans and Democrats, would last for a year. AIPAC, the powerful right-wing lobby which backs Israel’s Netanyahu regime would go further and permanently ban any U.S. aid intended to feed the starving Palestinians.

“Sadly, tragically, many members of Congress seem to be happy to be part of this starvation caucus, happy to cut funding to UNRWA and make it harder to get aid to Palestinians in the midst of this crisis,” declared Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., in a floor speech.

Sanders has tried twice, unsuccessfully, to cut off U.S. military aid to Israel, citing U.S. law that bans such aid to any nation violating international treaties covering war crimes.

“Food should not be used as a weapon of war,” added UNRWA Commissioner-General Phillp Lazzarini in a recent interview.

The aid ban is part of a “minibus” money bill lawmakers will vote on, up or down, on March 22. On the Republican side of the House aisle, we’ve seen this show before: As yet another spending bill-versus-shutdown deadline looms on Capitol Hill, Congress dithers, the Republicans fight each other, and the House Democrats ride to the rescue, again.

But, as the stands from Jones and Jayapal show, not all Democrats are with their party on this one.

Unless some legislative miracle occurs, come midnight on March 22, more than half a million federal workers would find their offices shuttered and their agency doors closed on Monday morning.

Still must work, without pay

And if they’re “essential” workers, like air traffic controllers, they still have to report to work, while facing the prospect of no paychecks the ensuing Friday.

“As federal employees, what happens in Washington directly impacts your paycheck, treatment on the job, and rights in the workplace,” their chief union, the Government Employees, says.

“These budget fights risk severely curtailing the hard-fought rights we achieved in 2023, including the across-the-board pay raise for federal workers and agency-specific wins like the improved pay at the Transportation Security Administration,” adds AFGE.

Lawmakers battled over the latest draft minibus spending bill covering the big government departments—including Defense, Education, Homeland Security, Labor, and Health and Human Services—plus smaller agencies in those areas, such as the National Labor Relations Board.

A partial shutdown, especially of Labor Department agencies and the NLRB, pleases the corporate class whose campaign cash funds the Republican right-wing foes of government funding. That’s because a shuttered OSHA, DOL Wage and Hour Division, and NLRB leave those wolves free to prey on workers without fear of government agents catching and prosecuting them.

The fight is two-fold. One is over how much to allot to each agency for the fiscal year that actually began six months ago. A draft House GOP spending plan called for a 33% cut in NLRB money, and double-digit percentage cuts for OSHA and the Wage and Hour Division, which battles wage theft.

But fights over money are also fights over priorities, and the money bill thus drew flak from both the radical right MAGAite House Freedom Caucus and from the progressives, for different reasons.

The Freedom Caucus was the big threat. The 41-lawmaker group–whose tail wags the party’s dog there—demands legislating divisive and often racist social issues into the money bill, plus a draconian immigration crackdown. And it wants to complete Donald Trump’s racist Mexican Wall.

The caucus also wants to eliminate money for research into gun violence and to kill funds to start constructing a new FBI headquarters to replace the bureau’s hulking outmoded building in D.C.

The caucus alleges, without proof of course, that the Biden administration “weaponized” the FBI against right-wingers. It conveniently ignored the Trumpite insurrection and invasion of the U.S. Capitol three years ago—an insurrection some caucus members loudly endorsed.

House Speaker Johnson, himself a right-wing Trumpite, again turned to the Democrats to help him pass the money bill. Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., told reporters his party’s members would vote “responsibly” i.e. for the $1.2 trillion money bill.

“Many of us are waiting to see the details and the text. But based on what we have heard from our leadership team…We look forward to putting up votes to pass this minibus,” Aguilar said.

Other details leaked out

Some details other than the cut off of the means to feed starving Palestinians—positive and negative–of the measure leaked out. They include:

A trillion bucks for the Pentagon. That includes Energy Department funds to modernize nukes. Six other money bills, worth $484 billion, were approved earlier this month and are law, so Republican Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., crowed that 70% of the minibus’s money goes to the military.

$1 billion in additional childcare subsidies

The Republicans wanted to cut the subsidy money entirely. “Investments in childcare and Head Start programs will support working-class and middle-class families, and will ensure more kids benefit from high-quality early education,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, which hammered out the minibus money bill.

Teachers unions welcomed that billion bucks, but lobby for more. So does DeLauro: “Let me be clear: Much more funding is necessary to address the childcare crisis in this country, and the staffing crisis at Head Start,” she said during a congressional hearing on next year’s spending.

Elimination of the MAGAites’ “poison pills” to kill diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in federal agencies. And its lack of a migration crackdown led to the Freedom Caucus opposition.

One of the few right-wing goals that remained: The longtime Hyde Amendment banning federal Medicaid funding of abortions.

Another made the measure tough to swallow for AFGE: Mandating a virtually complete return by federal workers to their offices, rather than letting agencies tailor “remote work” in bargaining with the union, as they did during the coronavirus pandemic.

AFGE President Clarence Kelley sarcastically said if Congress applied the same return-to-work logic to itself, it might “come dangerously close to selling the Capitol building,” since lawmakers aren’t in it for 21 of 52 weeks this year.

Democratic President Joe Biden also pushes return-to-office-work, touting the benefits of interactions with co-workers on the job. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, kowtowing to the politically powerful National Restaurant Association, advocates return to the offices, too. Its downtown D.C. members are hurting or permanently closed as the pandemic turned the area into a virtual ghost town, costing tax revenue.

$1.2 billion more for the Transportation Security Administration, to fund the catchup raise the agency agreed to for the 45,000 Transportation Security Officers, whose local just reached a new contract. Until the raise, the TSOs were the lowest-paid federal law enforcement workers by far.

The two sides’ new contract also provides collective bargaining rights for the TSOs equal to those other federal workers enjoy and improves work-life balance on the job. “It’s been a long journey since the beginning of our union when we barely had any say in what happened in our workplace,” said Hydrick Thomas, whose AFGE Council 100 represents the workers. “This agreement is a testament to the power of union membership.”

Despite the House Democrats’ decision to vote for the minibus, the money bill wasn’t out of the woods.

A GOP group, the Republican Study Committee, which dwarfs the Freedom Caucus—but which doesn’t tightly ideologically control its members–wants to restore the proposed “entitlements” commission, a thinly disguised attempt to cut Social Security and Medicare by raising the retirement age to 70 and reducing future cost-of-living increases.

And right-wing Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wants to derail the whole minibus. He said the feds should balance the budget, not add to the federal debt. “I will hold it up primarily because we’re bankrupt and it’s a terrible idea to keep spending money at this rate,” Paul says in a statement. The minibus “will lead to a $1.5 trillion deficit for the year. We’re borrowing about $1 trillion every three months. It’s an alarming pace of accumulation of debt.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.