A growing number of top Democrats plan to skip next month’s Capitol Hill speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Reps. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, and Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), are just the latest lawmakers to indicate they won’t attend the March 3 address before a rare joint session of Congress.

{mosads}The Democrats join other leading Capitol Hill liberals – including Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights hero, and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) – in protesting the speech by vowing to steer clear of it.

And the White House re-entered the fray on Friday, announcing that Vice President Biden will also miss the speech as a result of travel abroad. 

The uproar surrounding the address has taken on a life its own; the speech is scheduled to come near the end of delicate negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran over the future of the Iranian nuclear program.

One Democratic aide lamented that the debate has evolved in such a way that lawmakers risk the perception of being forced to choose between their support for Israel and that for the White House.

“We want to support both,” the aide said, “and there’s no way to attend this speech and do that.

Several other liberal Democrats, including Reps. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), also intend to boycott the address.

The Democrats’ criticisms of the speech are three-fold. First, they object to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) decision to invite Netanyahu without first approaching the White House or Democratic leaders in Congress, a move they say bucks the tradition of consulting across the aisle before bringing heads of state into the Capitol. 

Second, the Democrats contend Netanyahu’s speech is ill-timed because it comes just a few weeks before the Israeli prime minister faces a tough reelection contest in Israel. To use the Capitol as a campaign prop, they charge, is an inappropriate “exploitation” of the U.S. Congress, in the words of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

And third, the critics fear Netanyahu’s message – which is expected to feature calls for tougher sanctions on Iran – could undermine the multilateral nuclear disarmament talks being led by the Obama administration, which opposes new sanctions while the negotiations are ongoing.

“When nuclear security and Middle East stability hang in the balance, no member who cares about peace and Israel should participate in this effort to undercut our president,” Blumenauer wrote in a recent Huffington Post column decrying the invitation.

Neither leaders in the Black Caucus nor those in the Progressive Caucus are whipping members to join them in skipping the speech, saying the decision is a personal one. 

With that in mind, it’s unclear how many other Democrats will ultimately choose to protest the speech by refusing to go.

A number of liberals in both the CBC and CPC have declined to weigh in, while a number of others – including Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus – say they’re still on the fence while they push for a postponement.

“A lot can happen between now and the proposed speech in March,” a Johnson spokesman said Friday.

Still other Democrats are already signaling an intent to attend. Pelosi, for instance, said she thinks that, “as of now,” she’ll be in the audience. And the office of Rep. David Scott, a CBC member, said Friday that the Georgia Democrat will also be there.

Boehner, for his part, has defended the invitation, saying Netanyahu’s voice deserves America’s ear considering the heightened threat that Islamic terrorism poses to Israel and the West.

“It was a very good idea,” Boehner said Thursday. “There’s a message that the American people need to hear and I think he’s the perfect person to deliver it.” 

This story was updated at 6:35 p.m.

Tags Boehner Earl Blumenauer G.K. Butterfield John Boehner
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