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Senior Democrats consider boycott of Netanyahu address to Congress

President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on March 3, 2014. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

High-ranking Democrats are weighing a boycott of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress next month, complaining that it's a politicized event meant to embarrass President Obama and boost Netanyahu back home before a March 17 election.

The group, including long-standing backers of Israel such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is outraged that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) maneuvered to invite Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress without consulting Obama, White House officials or Secretary of State John F. Kerry. It's part of a bid by Republicans to apply political pressure on the administration as senior officials, led by Kerry, engage in sensitive talks with Iran over a possible deal to surrender its efforts to gain nuclear power.

[RELATED: Netanyahu’s Congress speech stirs growing backlash in Israel and the U.S.]

"My concern is that it’s obviously political, and it uses the backdrop of the United States House of Representatives, and the Senate and the House, two weeks before a political campaign, and violates all the protocol that’s always existed in terms of working this out with the president," Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in Senate leadership, said that many rank-and-file Democrats want to skip the address to show their support for Obama and to oppose what they consider a blatantly political move by Republicans and Netanyahu. Durbin said Democrats are discussing how they would behave during the address so that they would not be viewed by an international audience as overtly supporting Netanyahu's election or undercutting talks with Iran.

“They’ve been talking to me about what is the right way to react to what could turn out to be a divisive event," Durbin said, indicating that even as a member of leadership he has not decided whether to attend. “I haven’t made up my mind.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama believes that individual members of Congress will have to decide for themselves whether to attend Netanyahu's speech. As to whether Vice President Biden, the Senate's presiding officer, will go, Earnest said the vice president's schedule for that week has not been set.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said during the daily briefing that Vice President Biden takes his responsibilities as president of the Senate "very seriously," but would not say if his schedule would allow him to attend a joint session of Congress addressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Video: AP)

Boehner has not backed down under the criticism for his handling of the event, suggesting that he thinks the prime minister is the best spokesman for a get-tough approach toward Iran. Other Republicans said it would be disgraceful for Democrats to not show up for the address, planned for March 3.

"I think that would not be appropriate treatment of the prime minister of Israel, and I'm sure they can respond to their constituents as to why they would do that," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Democrats and White House officials have pointed fingers at Ron Dermer, Netanyahu's ambassador to the United States, for orchestrating the event, but Boehner has repeatedly rejected that assertion. Netanyahu has since made calls to senior Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). Politico reported Wednesday that Dermer trekked to the Capitol to meet with half a dozen House Democrats who have been traditional allies of Israel.

The speaker's office posted a timeline of events leading up to the invitation to Netanyahu, saying that the idea germinated with senior advisers to Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in talks late last year.

On Jan. 8, just two days after Republicans took total control of Congress following November's midterm elections, Boehner spoke with Dermer by phone to talk about the joint session address. The two spoke again on Jan. 20, the night of the State of the Union address, and the following morning Boehner told administration officials that he was inviting the prime minister to speak before Congress. They settled on March 3 to coordinate the trip around Netanyahu's appearance before the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington that same week.

The Democrats have been outraged ever since, with some who had been supportive of tough new legislation imposing deeper sanctions on Iran declaring they would pull back support until Kerry had more time to negotiate with the Iranian delegation.

Some House Democrats have decided they won't attend, saying that the event was meant to create an image for Netanyahu back home as he faces a potentially difficult reelection bid. "It's a campaign stunt, and I'm not working for his campaign. I'm not a standing stooge," Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said Tuesday.

"What will be remembered here is the slight against our president and the partisan political nature of it, and I don't know who's served by that," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said Tuesday.

“There are people that are discussing that, no question," Feinstein said, adding of her own thinking: "I haven’t decided."

Schumer said he will attend, but in his phone conversation he delivered a stern message to Netanyahu: “Israel, for its entire existence, has depended on a bipartisan support for its foreign policy, bipartisan support among Democrats and Republicans. . . . I wasn’t going to tell him to undo the invitation, but he had to do everything he could to show that the policy stays bipartisan.”