Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is scrambling at the eleventh hour to include controversial language in a year-end spending bill prohibiting U.S. companies from joining boycotts of Israel launched by the United Nations or similar groups.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOvernight Energy: EPA moves to raise ethanol levels in gasoline | Dems look to counter White House climate council | Zinke cleared of allegations tied to special election Democrats offer legislation to counter White House climate science council Dems face big questions on tax plans for 2020 MORE (D-Md.) and other members are pressing congressional leaders to attach his Israel anti-boycott legislation to a sweeping omnibus spending package — a move that could complicate efforts to prevent a government shutdown.

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“There is bipartisan interest in this issue, but everything is still being negotiated and nothing has been decided,” said one senior House Republican aide.

Supporters of the measure say it would simply expand an existing prohibition on companies participating in anti-Israel boycotts led by foreign governments to those orchestrated by international governmental organizations (IGOs).

“We don’t want our companies to be forced into implementing other countries’ decisions to boycott U.S. allies,” said a Cardin spokesperson.

But the provision has been hammered by human rights and free speech groups, which contend the proposal prioritizes the concerns of a foreign government over constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment protections. Those protections, the critics maintain, include the right to participate in the so-called boycott, divestment, sanctions movement (BDS) — an international campaign designed to press Israel on human rights issues surrounding the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict — regardless who is coordinating those activities. 

“This bill sets a precedent for penalizing First Amendment actions because they’re unpopular or because the government doesn’t agree with them,” said Manar Waheed, senior legislative and advocacy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 

“This is a step on a road to the erosion of First Amendment rights in a way that will impact movements and viewpoints for the future.”

A decision to attach the language to an enormous, year-end spending bill is sure to stir controversy, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle, where a number of liberal lawmakers have accused Israel of human rights abuses amid the decades-long Palestinian conflict.  

Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumOvernight Energy: DC moves closer to climate lawsuit against Exxon | Dems call for ethics investigation into Interior officials | Inslee doubles down on climate in 2020 bid Dem lawmakers call for investigation into Interior officials over alleged ethics violations Lawmakers stunned by national park shutdown funding reversal MORE (D-Minn.) sounded a warning last week that congressional leaders are working serendipitously “to slip language into a must-pass spending bill that criminalizes politically motivated boycotts against Israel.”

“The Israel Anti-Boycott Act violates our right to free speech,” McCollum tweeted.

The office of House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiHistory teaches that Nancy Pelosi is right about impeachment The politics and practicalities of impeachment The Hill's Morning Report - Dems contemplate big election and court reforms MORE (D-Calif.), who’s poised to take the Speaker’s gavel next year, declined to comment on the merits of the legislation. 

A senior House Democratic aide suggested the issue will necessarily be punted to next year, if talks over an omnibus break down and Congress is forced to pass a short-term continuing resolution (CR).  

“More likely is a CR so this wouldn’t have a place to go,” the aide said.

The office of Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerGOP rep to introduce constitutional amendment to limit Supreme Court seats to 9 Why we need to build gateway now Campaign to draft Democratic challenger to McConnell starts raising funds MORE (D-N.Y.) declined to comment on the record, while a spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP rep to introduce constitutional amendment to limit Supreme Court seats to 9 The Hill's Morning Report - Dems contemplate big election and court reforms Court-packing becomes new litmus test on left MORE (R-Ky.) said the majority leader has no intention of negotiating the spending bill through the press. 

Co-sponsored by Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP moves to rein in president's emergency powers The 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration Overnight Defense: Senate rejects border emergency in rebuke to Trump | Acting Pentagon chief grilled on wall funding | Warren confronts chief over war fund budget MORE (R-Ohio), Cardin’s anti-boycott legislation is just one of many provisions lawmakers from both parties are clamoring to attach to the enormous spending bill, which is among the last pieces of legislation to be considered before the year’s end. 

The legislation is a response to a resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2016, when it sought to establish a database of international companies doing business in disputed territories occupied by Israel, including the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Supporters of the proposal say it marks a simple expansion of anti-boycott language adopted in 1977 as part of amendments to the Export Administration Act, which sought to protect U.S. companies from being forced to engage in foreign-backed boycotts against their better judgment. At the time, the concern was the Arab League boycott against Israel, which featured black lists designed to pressure international companies to join the cause.  

Bill supporters say there’s an urgency to passing the legislation now, since the UNHRC is moving forward with its database. 

“It’s that movement from the international governmental organizations — the UNHRC specifically — that is driving some of the increased urgency of trying to get this done sooner rather than later,” said Cardin’s spokesperson. “Because they’re not waiting for Congress. They’re just plowing ahead.”

The critics see another reason behind the push to move the legislation this month. Democrats are set to take control of the House next year, and several incoming freshmen on the Democrats’ side have been vocal supporters of the BDS movement, including Rep.-elects Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibDems concerned impeachment will make Trump 'appear like a victim,' says pollster Officials dismiss criticism that Trump rhetoric to blame for New Zealand attack Tlaib: Trump needs to send a 'very loud and clear' signal against domestic terrorism, white supremacy MORE (D-Mich.), the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarAlan Dershowitz: In defense of Chelsea Clinton Hateful words demand stronger response from Congress, President Trump Omar: Peace only achievable when we 'apply our universal values to all nations' MORE (D-Minn.), the first Somali-American ever elected to Congress. 

“There’s very much a reason that members of Congress, leadership in Congress, is trying to push this through a spending bill without a debate before the new Congress comes in, and that’s because they know they’ll have less support for legislation that violates the First Amendment in this way in the new Congress,” said the ACLU’s Waheed. 

Backing the critic’s argument, two federal courts have ruled this year against Israel anti-boycott laws passed by state lawmakers in Kansas and Arizona. Both of those suits were brought by the ACLU, which has launched a similar challenge in Arkansas and filed yet another in Texas on Tuesday. 

“This is very clearly part of a larger effort to silence speech on this issue,” said Waheed.

The debate arrives as congressional leaders are scrambling to pass a series of seven federal spending bills before midnight Friday to prevent a partial government shutdown. The negotiations have been entangled in President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem lawmaker says Electoral College was 'conceived' as way to perpetuate slavery Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals to visit White House on Monday Transportation Dept requests formal audit of Boeing 737 Max certification MORE’s demand that funding for the Homeland Security Department include $5 billion for new construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall that was central to his 2016 campaign — a demand that’s a nonstarter with Democratic leaders. 

Some supporters of the anti-boycott legislation said they’re in no hurry to rush the legislation through Congress this year. 

Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump readies first veto after latest clash with Senate GOP House passes series of measures hitting Russia, Putin The Hill's Morning Report - Trump budget reignites border security fight MORE (D-N.Y.), who’s in line to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the next Congress, said it will be extremely tough to get anything “of import” into an omnibus bill this month. 

“We’re realistic in terms of what can be gotten and what cannot be gotten,” Engel said. 

“I’m not so worried about it, because we’re going to take over next year,” he continued. “If we don’t get to it now, we’ll have plenty of time in January and February to hit the ground running.”