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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 PelosiUS economy hurtles toward 'COVID cliff' with programs set to expire Democrats gear up for last oversight showdown with Trump Divided citizenry and government — a call to action for common ground 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 RubioDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results GOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics 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 HoyerHoyer on Trump election challenges: 'I think this borders on treason' Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last 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 CardinDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry On The Money: Biden, Democratic leaders push for lame-duck coronavirus deal | Business groups shudder at Sanders as Labor secretary | Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year Top Democrat: Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year MORE (D-Md.). The Rubio bill will be sent to the Financial Services Committee, headed by Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersOn The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed Maxine Waters says Biden win is 'dawn of a new progressive America' 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 TlaibDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks GOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations MORE (D-Mich.), the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarGOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally MORE (D-Minn.), the first Somali-American ever elected to Congress. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez defends Harry Styles wearing dress on Vogue cover: 'It looks wonderful' Democrats' squabbling vindicates Biden non-campaign GOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' 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 YarmuthThe GOP's debt boogieman is hurting families and derailing our recovery Pelosi, Democrats unveil bills to rein in alleged White House abuses of power GOP, White House struggle to unite behind COVID-19 relief 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 debate fate of Trump probes if Biden wins Congress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act COVID-19 and the problem of presidential succession 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.”