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 PelosiDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing White House, Democrats strike tentative deal to create Space Force in exchange for federal parental leave benefits: report Trump: Fox News 'panders' to Democrats by having on liberal guests 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 RubioHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump TikTok's leader to meet with lawmakers next week GOP senators unveil bill to expand 'opportunity zone' reporting requirements 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 approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump Overnight Health Care: House to vote next week on drug prices bill | Conway says Trump trying to find 'balance' on youth vaping | US spent trillion on hospitals in 2018 House to vote next week on sweeping bill to lower drug prices 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 CardinThe Secure Act makes critical reforms to our retirement system — let's pass it this year Lawmakers honor JFK on 56th anniversary of his death Senate Democrats ask Pompeo to recuse himself from Ukraine matters MORE (D-Md.). The Rubio bill will be sent to the Financial Services Committee, headed by Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersDemocrats could introduce articles of impeachment next week What are not criteria for impeachment? Fed's top regulator takes heat from both parties 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 TlaibSanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire House approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump House moves ahead on long-stalled resolution supporting two states for Israelis and Palestinians MORE (D-Mich.), the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire House approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump Al Green calls for including Trump's 'racism' in impeachment articles MORE (D-Minn.), the first Somali-American ever elected to Congress. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezButtigieg campaign says 2000 people attended Iowa rally Trump keeps Obama immigration program, and Democrats blast him Democrat who opposed Trump, Clinton impeachment inquiries faces big test 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 YarmuthOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Kentucky Democrat: McConnell's agenda driven by 'power without a purpose' 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 RaskinDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing Pelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers 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.”