Dems face internal battle over BDS bill

Legislation designed to shield Israel from boycotts is dividing House Democrats, pitting those who want to protect their Middle Eastern ally against liberal lawmakers voicing concerns that the very concept tramples the right to free speech.

The issue could pose a dilemma for Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller End of Mueller shifts focus to existing probes Democrats renew attacks on Trump attorney general MORE (D-Calif.), who's seeking to keep her party united in the face of blistering attacks from Republicans hoping to use the controversial proposal to divide Democrats — and drive Jewish voters to the GOP’s side.

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The Senate this week is expected to pass an Israel anti-boycott provision — championed by Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Cuban negotiator says Trump's efforts to destabilize Cuba's government will fail Freedom to Compete Act would benefit many American workers MORE (R-Fla.) and tucked into a larger foreign policy package — sending it to the House, where pro-Israel Democrats are eager to consider the issue, even if they oppose the specifics of Rubio's bill.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse Dem dismisses impeachment push: 'I'd rather defeat' Trump at ballot box Democrats renew attacks on Trump attorney general Impeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent MORE (D-Md.), a staunch Israel ally, said he supports the concept but would prefer a Democratic alternative, sponsored in the last Congress by Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Senate Dem: Trump 'using immigrants as pawns' Bottom Line MORE (D-Md.). The Rubio bill will be sent to the Financial Services Committee, headed by Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersMichael Steele: A missed opportunity at holding banks accountable On The Money: House Dem says marijuana banking bill will get vote in spring | Buttigieg joins striking Stop & Shop workers | US home construction slips in March | Uber gets B investment for self-driving cars Democrats should be careful wielding more investigations MORE (D-Calif.), and Hoyer said he's “look[ing] forward to the committee's recommendation.”

Yet many Democrats have opposed even the Cardin bill, siding with human rights advocates in arguing the legislation infringes on First Amendment protections. The issue sets the powerful Israel lobby against the American Civil Liberties Union — and could pose a headache for Pelosi and Democratic leaders seeking a balance between protecting an ally abroad and safeguarding free speech at home.

“I hope we don't take it up,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), former head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I think restrictions on a citizen’s ability of organization to be able to influence a policy — whether we agree or disagree with it — should be protected.”

Rubio’s bill, slated for final passage this week, would empower states to penalize companies that participate in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement — an international drive designed to press Israel on human rights issues related to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The campaign is particularly focused on companies doing business in disputed territories occupied by Israel, including the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Twenty-two Senate Democrats — including a number of 2020 presidential hopefuls — voted to block the bill's advancement in the upper chamber last week. And the inclusion of the Rubio provision means the package is certainly dead on arrival in the liberal-leaning House, where U.S. policy in the Middle East has been under the spotlight with the arrival of an outspoken freshmen class that features the first Muslim women in Congress's history.

A handful of those newcomers have been vocal supporters of the BDS movement, including Reps. Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibTim Ryan doesn't back impeachment proceedings against Trump Tlaib rallies in support of Green New Deal at Detroit town hall Warren calls for House to begin impeachment proceedings MORE (D-Mich.), the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarGroups, lawmakers use 4/20 to raise awareness about marijuana sentencing reform Ocasio-Cortez plans visit to Kentucky despite being disinvited by GOP colleague Man arrested for threatening Dems, citing Omar comments MORE (D-Minn.), the first Somali-American ever elected to Congress. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezMichael Steele: A missed opportunity at holding banks accountable House Dem dismisses impeachment push: 'I'd rather defeat' Trump at ballot box Tlaib rallies in support of Green New Deal at Detroit town hall MORE (D-N.Y.), the most prominent member of the new crop of Democrats, is also an outspoken supporter of the movement, a position Republicans are racing to frame as anti-Israel — even anti-Semitic — heading into the 2020 elections.

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Yet it's not only the freshmen Democrats who are wary of the legislation. A number of liberal veterans are also voicing concerns that any effort to stifle political boycotts poses a threat to the First Amendment. 

“I am not particularly sympathetic to anything that denies people the right to use their economic leverage to achieve what they want, as a general proposition,” said Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthDivided Dems look to regroup On The Money — Presented by Job Creators Network — GOP senators urge Trump not to nominate Cain | Treasury expected to miss Dem deadline on Trump tax returns | Party divisions force Dems to scrap budget vote | House passes IRS reform bill Left-center divide forces Dems to scrap budget vote MORE (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Yarmuth emphasized that he’s withholding judgment until he studies the specific proposals, but he strongly suggested he opposes the legislation on conceptional grounds.

“To me, it’s a free speech issue,” he said.

It's unclear how Democrats will proceed when the Rubio bill is delivered to the House. Hoyer suggested he opposes the Senate approach, saying it “wasn't discrete.” But he endorsed last year's Cardin bill, which would bar U.S. companies from joining boycotts of Israel launched by international governmental organizations like the United Nations — an extension of an existing prohibition on similar boycotts led by foreign governments.

“The Cardin bill deals with ... international organizations. This bill that was passed in the Senate deals with a different subject, which has not been vetted in the House,” Hoyer said. “There is clearly a question of drawing the line [between] free speech and the right of anybody to advocate the policy that they want, and actions to hurt an ally of the United States. And I think that that's an important distinction.” 

“I am not sure the Rubio legislation drew that distinction properly.” 

Pelosi, for her part, has not weighed in publicly on the BDS question. Her office declined to comment on Friday.

The issue has left a number of Democrats torn — and awaiting the specifics of any legislation before forecasting their vote.

Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinHouse Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Dem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction Washington in frenzy over release of Mueller report MORE (D-Md.), a liberal member of the Judiciary Committee, said he opposes the BDS movement, citing the need for “intensive engagement and investment on all sides.”

“But,” he quickly added, “I've also defended everybody's First Amendment rights at the same time. So I guess, in this whole field you have to look very specifically at the details of particularly legislative motions. 

“And I've not seen them.”

The opponents of the new restrictions have no such reservations. Grijalva cited his involvement, as a teenager, in a boycott designed to win new protections for grape pickers. “And for that population, those workers, that boycott went a long ways for them being finally recognized for getting their contract as a union,” he said.

“I don't know how this is being played out, but anything that begins to restrict people's ability to influence and to try to affect something, we shouldn't prohibit them from being able to use that tool,” Grijalva continued. “I know people are going to disagree with me, but I just hope we don't see it here.”