While congressional Democrats focus on the government shutdown, Senate Republicans are making a push on foreign policy. The fight over Israel raging on Capitol Hill is the first foreign policy showdown of the new Congress, and it’s a fight Senate Republicans seem to have picked intentionally — with an eye toward 2020.
Progressive Democrats flipped out this weekend after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) invoked a Senate procedure to quickly bring a package of Middle East-related foreign policy bills to the floor, setting them up for a single Tuesday afternoon cloture vote. Three of the bills were relatively noncontroversial measures, but the fourth was a bill led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to give state and local governments cover to punish companies that support the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
On Sunday, several Senate Democrats came out against the vote, arguing the shutdown should be resolved first. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) actually supports the anti-BDS bill but agreed to vote against the package until the shutdown is resolved.
But if McConnell’s strategy was to draw attention to the Israel policy divide inside the Democratic caucus, progressives eagerly took the bait. “First and foremost, McConnell is pushing Democrats to take a position on BDS,” a senior Senate aide told me.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted Sunday afternoon that Republicans were “absurd” for beginning the new session with the Rubio anti-BDS bill, which he says violates constitutional rights to free speech through boycotting. (Rubio argues his bill upholds the right to boycott those who boycott.)
Freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who supports the BDS movement, tweeted Sunday evening that GOP senators “forgot what country they represent.” Rubio responded by accusing her of “anti-Semitism,” because accusations of “dual loyalty” are often used as anti-Semitic smears.
On Monday morning, Rubio publicly accused Senate Democrats of invoking the shutdown to avoid taking a vote on his anti-BDS legislation. “A huge argument broke out at Senate Dem meeting last week over BDS. A significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS & Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that,” Rubio tweeted.
A Senate Democratic aide told me that while it’s true Democrats debated the issue in a caucus meeting last week, Rubio was resorting to “Trumpesque tactics” by claiming a “significant number of Senate Democrats” now support the BDS movement.
By Monday afternoon, Politico was reporting that the McConnell package of foreign policy bills was likely to fail to get the 60 votes needed to advance, because of Democratic opposition.
One could argue that progressive Democrats scored a success in stopping pro-Israel legislation they opposed. But many observers think progressive Democrats stepped right into McConnell’s trap by turning the issue into an internal caucus fight.
Officially, Republicans maintain they are simply pushing common-sense legislation that has had broad bipartisan support in the past. The other three bills in McConnell’s package — on U.S. aid to Israel, defense cooperation with Jordan and sanctions against the Assad government for mass atrocities against Syrian civilians — would be law right now if President Trump had signed the bipartisan-negotiated omnibus package Congress sent him in December.
But over in the House, where Democrats are assuming power and squaring off against their Senate Republican counterparts, they see McConnell’s play as pure politics. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) told me he supports anti-BDS efforts but prefers a bill called “the Israel Anti-Boycott Act,” which had 292 co-sponsors in the House and 58 in the Senate and seeks to address the “constitutional concerns” about Rubio’s bill.
“If Senate Republicans are serious about dealing with the issue, they’ll look to that compromise,” Engel said. “Otherwise, this is just playing politics with important foreign-policy matters.”
The fact that McConnell included Rubio’s anti-BDS bill, which the House has not weighed in on, makes it seem like a poison pill to House Democrats.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the new ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will introduce a companion to the McConnell-Rubio package in the House this week. But the House leadership has no intention of taking it up. Rather, they will bring the Syria bill — known as the “Caesar Bill,” after the Syrian activist who risked his life to expose Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities — to the House floor by itself Thursday, two senior House Democratic aides told me.
The House Democrats’ idea is to put the ball back in the Senate Republicans' court on foreign policy and highlight the mess that Trump has made by announcing a hasty U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria and then sending conflicting messages about that policy for weeks. (He did it again this week.)
But the Democratic leadership is in a bind. They can use the shutdown to avoid voting directly on anti-BDS legislation for now. But when it eventually comes up, it will likely pass (in some form) with the support of Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who recently shrugged off the Israel policies of what she calls the “extreme left.”
And each of the dozen or more Democratic lawmakers potentially running for president will have to take a position, one that either hurts them with progressives in the primary or moderates in the general election. And that’s the point. One can lament the end of congressional bipartisanship on Israel, but the truth is that has been the case for many years.
McConnell is attempting to show that, on Israel, Republicans are actually largely in agreement, whereas Democrats have a growing problem. The political battle over foreign policy leading up to 2020 has begun, and McConnell just fired the opening salvo.