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Business News/ Politics / U.S. Grapples With Political Gridlock as Crises Mount
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U.S. Grapples With Political Gridlock as Crises Mount

wsj

Partisan political animosity and tumult in Congress threaten to hamper efforts to deal with the attack on Israel and security crises arising from emboldened adversaries.

Last week’s ouster of Kevin McCarthy—shown leaving his offices at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday—as House speaker has essentially frozen the chamber. Premium
Last week’s ouster of Kevin McCarthy—shown leaving his offices at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday—as House speaker has essentially frozen the chamber.

Heightened animosity between the two U.S. political parties and tumult in Congress are threatening to hamper efforts to respond to the attack on Israel, America’s closest Mideast ally, and to address security crises arising from emboldened adversaries.

With the U.S. House essentially frozen after the ouster of its speaker, and the two parties fighting over issues including a defense budget for the current year, President Biden is suddenly confronting both political chaos at home and volatile challenges abroad at the same time. The abduction of Americans by the militant group Hamas, as Israel prepares for a ground invasion in Gaza,  show how high stakes those challenges will be.

Biden on Tuesday said the U.S. was sending military assistance to Israel, such as interceptors to replenish Iron Dome, the missile defense tasked with protecting against barrages of Hamas rockets in recent days. But Biden also said Congress would need to do more, and he urged lawmakers to unite.

“We’re going to ask them to take urgent action to fund the national-security requirements of our critical partners,’’ Biden said. “This is not about party or politics. This is about the security of our world, security of the United States of America.’’

Danielle Pletka, a former staff member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said America’s adversaries have been emboldened by events such as the turmoil in the House, the lack of consensus over additional security money for Ukraine and Biden’s unwillingness, in her view, to rally Americans behind Ukraine’s defense against Russia.

“They underscore an impression in places like Tehran, Moscow and Beijing that the United States is not the power it was,’’ a view also fortified by America’s policy decisions to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, she said.

“I think there is a general sense among our adversaries that American politics is irretrievably broken, and that the American people are determinedly inward-looking,’’ said Pletka, who is now with the American Enterprise Institute. “And to many of them, this is a license to act without fear of American intervention.’’

The sand in the gears of Congress lately has affected its work on many fronts:

For the first time in history, the House voted to oust its speaker, bringing business to a standstill while the majority party, the Republicans, spends valuable time this week on an internal fight over a replacement.In a departure from tradition, a single senator, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R., Ala.)  is holding up promotions for hundreds of senior military officers to protest the Pentagon’s abortion policies, leading defense officials to warn about operational and staff-retention problems. A report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says it would take the Senate more than 689 hours of floor time to approve the promotions individually, rather than as a group, the usual process that Tuberville has blocked.

Partisan fighting has meant that the government is funded only through mid-November, and so Congress will have to spend time in the coming weeks on a debate over full-year funding that is sure to be contentious. Also on Congress’s to-do list this year: Passing the typically bipartisan defense-policy bill, which sets military spending priorities and would include a 5.2% pay raise for troops.

Foreign-policy specialists say the Biden administration can accomplish its goals in the short term. Among other steps, the U.S. military is moving a carrier strike group and several Air Force jet fighter squadrons closer to Israel to deter Iran from taking advantage of the uncertainty in the region. But the administration will soon need Congress to return to regular functioning to consider its requests, such as additional Iron Dome funding, as the war between Israel and Hamas continues.

“The norms of behavior have been degraded in Washington,’’ said William Wechsler, a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration for special operations and combating terrorism, who says both parties are at fault. “We are now in a situation that makes governing challenging in the best of circumstances….Then, it’s doubly a problem when we’re dealing with questions of war."

Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who serves on a Defense Department advisory board, said that partisan fighting could be most damaging to U.S. efforts to help Israel end the conflict with Hamas, after the militant group’s strength is presumably destroyed or degraded.

“Anything resembling a Biden win in foreign policy could be anathema to many MAGA Republicans, especially as we get into an election year,’’ he said, referring to Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. He also worried about “foreign-aid fatigue’’ diminishing the amount of financial assistance the U.S. will give to Israel and other nations, as well as hampering Biden’s efforts to win more funding for Ukraine.

“So, to me, in short, it’s on Ukraine and the debate over a political endgame for Gaza where I worry we could pay a price for our dysfunction,’’ he said.

The tension in Congress comes as Americans are losing faith in the government’s ability to address critical problems. Just 4% of Americans believe the government is working extremely or very well, a Pew Research Center survey found last month, while about 85% of people in each political party agreed that Republicans and Democrats are more focused on fighting each other than on solving problems.

For the past year and a half, the U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador to Egypt, which has played a central role in brokering cease-fires to past clashes between Israel and the militant group Hamas. President Biden made a nomination to the post in March.

On Monday, the White House signaled that it is pressing the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority, to move quickly to confirm Jack Lew, Biden’s nominee to be ambassador to Israel. While the delay in confirmation hearings hasn’t been excessive, given that Biden nominated him only last month, nominations to other Mideast capitals have been pending longer. Biden nominated an ambassador to Kuwait in August, 2022. The post remains unfilled.

Sen. Ted Cruz has placed a hold on Biden’s nominee to be ambassador to Lebanon, where former President Trump’s selection remains in place, as well as on the State Department official who leads efforts to defeat terrorism abroad. That person has been awaiting confirmation for nearly two years, according to Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.). Cruz has said that the role is important but that Biden’s nominee was insufficiently committed to fighting terrorist groups in a prior role.

Defense officials have complained for months about the blockade that Tuberville placed on hundreds of senior military promotions, saying it has had an impact on officers’ ability to do their jobs. Tuberville has said he won’t budge until the Pentagon agrees to end its policy allowing troops leave and travel funds for reproductive healthcare, including abortion. He has said he doesn’t believe his move has affected military readiness.

While senators sometimes put holds on Pentagon political appointees who have policy-making responsibilities, the Tuberville move broke with Senate tradition as it applies to career military officers who aren’t responsible for making policy.

Tuberville’s holds and the speaker turmoil in the House risk spilling over to affect the U.S. military’s ability to counter China and arms transfers to Taiwan and, ultimately, erode confidence among allies in Washington, say analysts. Zack Cooper, a former Pentagon official now with the American Enterprise Institute think tank, said that lately he has been fielding questions from officials and experts in Asia asking whether it means “Republicans are turning inward" and the U.S. less dependable.

“The dysfunction in the House, however, is a much more long-term issue, amplifying worries in Asia that the United States may not be able to deliver on its past promises," he said.

Nancy Youssef and Charles Hutzler contributed to this article.

Write to Aaron Zitner at aaron.zitner@wsj.com

U.S. efforts to help Israel end the conflict with Hamas could be damaged by U.S. partisan political fighting.
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U.S. efforts to help Israel end the conflict with Hamas could be damaged by U.S. partisan political fighting.

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