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Week in politics: Biden under pressure as Gaza death toll rises

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Of course, President Biden has strongly supported Israel's military offensive against Hamas, but the civilian death toll and destruction in Gaza has put his administration under pressure. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: It's been a month now since the crisis began, and the challenge has been relentless, hasn't it?

ELVING: Yes. The carnage continues. The pressure is unrelenting. The Biden administration confronts this crisis on three fronts. They have to support Israel - the state and the idea of modern Israel. That has been the U.S. commitment for 75 years. But the administration is also working to restrain the retaliatory actions of the Israeli military and moderate the response of the Israeli government - recalling, of course, that it's a government often at odds with its own people in Israel and with many American Jews over the autocratic policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Now, this is driven in part, too, by Democrats in Congress. In the Senate this week, two dozen Democrats and two independents sent a letter to Biden urging restraint, urging that only defensive aid to Israel be sent without a challenge to them to provide a plan for Gaza. So that points us to yet a third front. The White House is dealing with a divided Democratic party, some fully supporting Israel as in the past, but some more empathetic with the suffering and the claims and the aspirations of Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere.

SIMON: Fourteen billion dollars of military aid has been promised by the Biden administration to Israel, but it hasn't come about yet, has it?

ELVING: It's in limbo. And for the moment, it is the latest casualty of the infighting within the House Republican majority. There's a small but determined core of conservative activists within that body, empowered to a large degree by former President Trump, who are refusing to return to business as usual. They have voted out their own leader, the speaker of the House. They took weeks to replace him with someone who has had no time for on-the-job training.

So the House did vote for aid to Israel, but only after stripping out money for Ukraine and Taiwan and other purposes. They also have added what's known as a poison pill amendment, cutting enforcement money for the IRS, money needed to collect legally owed taxes. That whole approach faces bipartisan rejection in the Senate, not to mention a veto from Biden, so not yet a serious negotiation.

SIMON: And a deadline for the budget approaches, doesn't it?

ELVING: Six days, to be exact. By next weekend, at least parts of the federal government will probably be shutting down. That's unless the House and Senate can work out another stopgap funding bill. They call it a continuing resolution. It amounts to kicking the can down the road, and eventually, they'll probably do just that. But here again, there is a contingent in the House that would rather see at least part of the government shutdown, at least temporarily, than go along with what they consider business as usual. And that's a pledge they made to the people who voted for them.

The rest of Congress would like to fulfill the pledge they made to the people who voted for them, which includes keeping the government open as promised. So imagine yourself suddenly speaker of the House, trying to bridge all of these different chasms at once - not an enviable task. And last week they brought two spending bills to the floor, and they couldn't pass either one with their own votes.

SIMON: I never imagine myself as speaker of the House (laughter), but I get your point. Democrats celebrated a lot of wins in elections at the state level. Is this a temporary reprieve, in a sense, for the polls about President Biden?

ELVING: Yes. It gives the white House something to crow about for a few days. But most of these races turned on support for abortion rights. And, yes, Democrats continued an impressive winning streak on that issue. That is a win for Biden's side. But is it a win for Biden? Does it make him a better candidate? There was also bad news for the party last week in Senator Joe Manchin's retirement in West Virginia. He was already endangered, and now that seat looks lost. And there are half a dozen other Democrats facing tough reelections in the Senate next year, so holding that slim majority is going to be an increasingly difficult fight.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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