WASHINGTON – The House voted Tuesday to choke off the flow of U.S. aid to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority, drawing the displeasure of the Bush administration and dividing the pro-Israel lobbying community.
The measure, approved 361-37, would cut off aid to non-governmental groups working in the West Bank and Gaza except for health programs and would deny visas to members of the Palestinian Authority. It also would ban contacts with Hamas because of its classification as a terrorist organization and limit the president's authority to waive the aid bans.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a chief sponsor of the bill, said, "The United States must make it ambiguously clear that we will not support such a terrorist regime, that we will not directly or indirectly allow American taxpayer funds to be used to perpetuate the leadership of an Islamic jihadist group."
The vote on the Palestinian Anti-Terrorist Act came as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was meeting President Bush at the White House to discuss Israel's plans to impose a West Bank settlement on the Palestinians. Olmert addresses a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
The White House, which has already cut off funds for the Hamas-led government until it recognizes Israel's right to exist and renounces acts of terrorism, criticized the bill as unneeded and overreaching in its restrictions.
"The bill is unnecessary as the executive branch already has ample authority to impose all its restrictions and it constrains the executive's flexibility to use sanctions," the State Department said in a statement.
The measure must still be considered in the Senate, where Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Joe Biden, D-Del., have a similar but somewhat less restrictive bill that carves out more exceptions for Palestinian Authority officials not affiliated to Hamas.
In three hours of sometimes emotional debate on the House floor Monday night, lawmakers were unanimous in condemning Hamas, which ascended to power in January elections, but differed sharply on the wisdom of the comprehensive sanctions outlined in the bill.
"The issue is not Hamas," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., a critic of the bill. "The issue is rather the bill's ban on aid to all non-governmental groups, private groups and organizations, many of whom are diametrically opposed to Hamas's philosophy."
But Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Palestinians "have made their choice" in voting Hamas into power. "American aid to the Palestinian people must be predicated on their rejection of terrorism."
Pro-Israel groups, have also split on the issue, with the largest lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), pushing for its passage. "Today, Congress made it clear that Hamas' decision to continue its support for terrorism has direct and immediate consequences," AIPAC said after the vote.
Other groups, including the Israel Policy Forum and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have come out against it. "We believe that this legislation will damage America's interests and Israel's as well by undermining the U.S. ability to advance peace and democracy in the region," the Israel Policy Forum said in a statement.
The bill also engendered a dispute between AIPAC and Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who claimed that an AIPAC representative accused her of supporting terrorism by opposing the bill and banned AIPAC from her office until she gets an apology.
The volunteer, in a letter to McCollum, said it was the congresswoman's chief of staff who brought up the issue of supporting terrorism in her phone conversation with him. AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr has written McCollum offering to meet her to discuss the dispute.