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House Democrats split as GOP demands action on anti-Israel boycott

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on May 9. Republicans have targeted Tlaib in an effort to paint Democrats as tolerant of anti-Semitism and insufficiently supportive of Israel.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on May 9. Republicans have targeted Tlaib in an effort to paint Democrats as tolerant of anti-Semitism and insufficiently supportive of Israel. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

House Democrats, roiled by accusations of anti-Semitism this year, are divided over how to stand with Israel and condemn a global boycott movement as Republicans demand a Democratic response.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called on Democrats this week to pass legislation condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which aims to apply economic pressure on the Israeli government to change its policies toward the Palestinians.

House Republicans also launched an effort this week using a rare legislative tool to sidestep the Democratic leadership and force a vote on the issue.

“Those Democrats who believe in standing up to anti-Semitism have an opportunity to do so,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “Do not let your leadership stop you.”

The GOP challenge comes just days after the latest political brushfire involving Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), one of two Muslim women in the House, and fresh accusations of anti-Semitism. Tlaib’s comments referring to the Holocaust drew criticism from Republicans, who misconstrued her remarks.

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While Democratic leaders brushed off GOP attacks on Tlaib, they face a tougher task in unifying the party’s response to the global boycott.

Many, if not most, Democrats also oppose the BDS movement, but some are also wary of revisiting an issue that badly divided the caucus earlier this year when Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) made comments many members considered anti-Semitic, forcing a vote to condemn all anti-Semitism and other bigotry. And they are balking especially at being drawn into a internecine fight on Republicans’ terms.

“I don’t know how many times we have to be clear about our support for the Jewish community and against anti-Semitism, and I really think we have a lot of important things to focus on here in Congress, and I don’t think it’s helpful,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), under prodding from pro-Israel lawmakers and political allies, both believe that the House should speak out in some manner to condemn BDS. Hoyer told reporters Wednesday that his “inclination” was to schedule a bill for a vote once the House Foreign Affairs Committee produces one.

“I expect to be moving something out of the committee in the relatively near future,” he said, calling BDS “a movement that is negative in its consequences to a very strong ally of the United States.” The Foreign Affairs panel has not scheduled any action on BDS.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) played down the potential for quick action. “It’s not as swift as you’d think, but we’re going to do it,” he said, noting his desire to “do it in a way that gets the most votes.”

The Senate bill that House Republicans are promoting won 77 votes in the Senate, including that of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), but numerous Democrats have raised qualms about a measure that would confirm that state and local governments can bar pro-BDS companies from receiving contracts, citing free-speech concerns.

Nearly a half dozen Senate Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination opposed the bill.

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In hopes of resolving the issue, House Democratic leaders are seeking to build support behind a bipartisan resolution authored by Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) that condemns BDS and calls for a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We’re getting asked about it all the time, so I think it’s really important to bring it to the floor,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a vocal pro-Israel Democrat. “This has always been an issue with strong bipartisan support and strong Democratic support. I don’t think anything’s changed.”

What has changed is the feeling among many Democrats that bringing an Israel-related measure to the House floor would only play into Republican efforts to paint their party as anti-Israel and tolerant of anti-Semitism. That impression was prevalent this week after top Republicans seized on Tlaib’s comments on a Yahoo News podcast and claimed that she had said that the Holocaust gave her a “calming feeling.”

That was a distortion of what Tlaib had said: The “calming feeling” she described referred to the fact that her Palestinian ancestors had lost their land “in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews” after the Holocaust. While many observers questioned the historical accuracy of her statement, Tlaib referred to the Holocaust itself as “horrific” and a “tragedy.”

The distortion of Tlaib’s words by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and others prompted both Pelosi and Hoyer to defend Tlaib — and, to many Democrats, it proved that GOP calls for action on BDS and other pro-Israel matters were hardly in good faith.

“If anybody wasn’t convinced, then certainly what happened over the weekend makes it clear: This is what they are going to do every single time,” Jayapal said. “They are going to police the words of members, and then they are going to use that as a wedge to try to divide our caucus, and I don’t think we should fall for it.”

A spokesman for Tlaib, who has spoken out against anti-BDS legislation, declined to comment on the prospect of Democratic leaders scheduling a vote. “Her original sentiments around the bill have not changed,” said the spokesman, Denzel McCampbell.

The debate has played out in private meetings of House Democrats, according to people in attendance, where several influential members have urged Pelosi to sidestep the issue, with some arguing that the party risks conflating support for Israel with support of the right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I’m a strong supporter of Israel, but I think we need a healthy debate about what’s happening under the Netanyahu administration in Israel,” said Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.). Republicans, she added, “have a political agenda that’s now out of the closet that’s designed to divide our caucus, and this is not a political issue.”

But if Democratic leaders don’t act, they risk having a group of frustrated Democrats joining with Republicans to hijack the House floor — an embarrassing prospect for Pelosi and Hoyer.

According to two Democrats familiar with the behind-the-scenes talks, House leaders have been told that if there is no vote before the summer recess, members could dig into the House legislative toolbox to force action. The Democrats spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely talk about private discussions.

One option would be to join the Republican discharge petition, which would force a vote if 218 members sign it. Another would use, potentially for the first time, the House “consensus calendar” — a new procedure for bipartisan bills meant to provide for consideration of broadly supported legislation that is opposed by the majority party leadership.

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