US top military leaders face Congress over Pentagon budget and questions on Israel, Ukraine support

Washington — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Charles Brown Jr. testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday about the Pentagon’s $850 billion budget for 2025 as questions remained as to whether lawmakers will support current spending needs for Israel or Ukraine.

The Senate hearing was the first time lawmakers on both sides were able to question the Pentagon’s top civilian and military leadership on the administration’s Israel strategy following the country’s deadly strike on World Central Kitchen humanitarian aid workers in Gaza. It also follows continued desperate pleas by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that if the U.S. does not help soon, Kyiv will lose the war to Russia.

In their opening statements, both Austin and Brown emphasized that their 2025 budget is still shaped with the military’s long-term strategic goal in mind — to ready forces and weapons for a potential future conflict with China. About $100 billion of this year’s request is set aside for new space, nuclear weapons and cyber warfare systems the military says it must invest in now before Beijing’s capabilities surpass it.

But the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel are challenging a deeply-divided Congress and have resulted in months of delays in getting last year’s defense budget through, which was only passed by lawmakers a few weeks ago.

Austin’s opening remarks were temporarily interrupted by protesters lifting a Palestinian flag and shouting at him to stop sending weapons to Israel. “Stop the genocide,” they said, as they lifted their hands, stained in red, in the air.

The Pentagon scraped together about $300 million in ammunition to send to Kyiv in March but cannot send more without Congress’ support, and a separate $60 billion supplemental bill that would fund those efforts has been stalled for months.

“The price of U.S. leadership is real. But it is far lower than the price of U.S. abdication,” Austin told the senators.

If Kyiv falls, it could imperil Ukraine’s Baltic NATO member neighbors and potentially drag U.S. troops into a prolonged European war. If millions die in Gaza due to starvation, it could enrage Israel’s Arab neighbors and lead to a much wider, deadlier Middle East conflict — one that could also bring harm to U.S. troops and to U.S. relations in the region for decades.

The Pentagon has urged Congress to support new assistance for Ukraine for months, to no avail, and has tried to walk a perilous line between defending its ally Israel and maintaining ties with key regional Arab partners. Israel’s actions in Gaza have been used as a rallying cry by factions of Iranian-backed militant groups, including the Houthis in Yemen and Islamic Resistance groups across Iraq and Syria, to strike at U.S. interests. Three U.S. service members have already been killed as drone and missile attacks increased against U.S. bases in the region.

Six U.S. military ships with personnel and components to build a humanitarian aid pier are also still en route to Gaza but questions remain as to how food that arrives at the pier will be safely distributed inside the devastated territory.

Lawmakers are also seeing demands at home. For months, a handful of its far-right members have kept Congress from approving additional money or weapons for Ukraine until domestic needs like curbing the crush of migrants at the southern U.S. border are addressed. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson is already facing a call to oust him as speaker by Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene because Johnson is trying to work out a compromise that would move the Ukraine aid forward.

On Israel, the World Central Kitchen strike led to a shift in tone from President Joe Biden on how Israel must protect civilian life in Gaza and drove dozens of House Democrats, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to call on Biden to halt weapons transfers to Israel.

Half the population of Gaza is starving and on the brink of famine due to Israel’s tight restrictions on allowing aid trucks through.

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