GOP seeks to turn tables on Dems with BDS, Syria bill

GOP seeks to turn tables on Dems with BDS, Syria bill
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are trying to drive a wedge between Democrats with a Middle East foreign policy bill they’ve brought to the floor this week.

After a monthlong shutdown fight that has exposed their own divisions, Republicans are eager to turn the tables on Democrats.

Republicans have seized on two points of possible tension within the wide-ranging legislation, both of which could split Democrats.

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The first is an anti-boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) provision that would let states penalize businesses that take part in boycotts or divestments of Israel. The second is a proposed amendment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes Hobbled NRA shows strength with Trump MORE (R-Ky.) that would urge President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE to rethink his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. 

Democrats have been divided for weeks over the BDS provision, and the issue has split a number of the Democrats eyeing the 2020 presidential race from the party’s leadership.

Twenty-two Democrats opposed advancing the underlying foreign policy bill earlier this week, including Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE (N.J.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownBank watchdogs approve rule to loosen ban on risky Wall Street trades Dayton mayor assigned extra security following verbal spat with Trump The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape MORE (Ohio), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Sanders unveils plan to double union membership in first term The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden expands lead in new national poll MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Top adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE (Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Top adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE (Mass.). Sen Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Top adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE (I-Vt.), who caucuses with the Democrats, also opposed it. 

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes Harris to appear in CNN climate town hall after backlash MORE (D-Minn.), who is also seen as a possible 2020 candidate, voted to advance it, along with Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSaagar Enjeti: Biden's latest blunder; Krystal Ball: Did Schumer blow our chance to beat McConnell? Johnson eyes Irish border in Brexit negotiations Lewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' MORE (N.Y.) and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: Planned Parenthood to leave federal family planning program absent court action | Democrats demand Trump withdraw rule on transgender health | Cummings, Sanders investigate three drug companies for 'obstructing' probe Democrats demand Trump officials withdraw rule on transgender health The Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate MORE (Wash.), the third-ranking Democrat.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate Democrats push Trump to permanently shutter migrant detention facility House panel investigating decision to resume federal executions To combat domestic terrorism, Congress must equip law enforcement to fight rise in white supremacist attacks MORE (Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat, voted against advancing it.

A number of Democrats have argued that the provision would penalize free speech by those wanting to take part in the BDS movement.

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“While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to engage in political activity. It is clear to me that this bill would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights,” Sanders said in a statement this week.

The politics for Democrats are more complicated on the Syria provision.

Trump’s announcement late last year that he would remove troops from Syria sparked a backlash from Democrats. Though many disagreed with sending troops to the country in the first place, they also disagreed with his rationale for removing troops.

Durbin, who did not say how he would vote, acknowledged that he is “conflicted” over the issue. 

“It is problematic,” he said. “I didn’t vote that for the war that we’re currently engaged in, if that’s what you want to call it. And I think some of the language by McConnell is very loose and although I want to see our troops come home in an orderly fashion the way he has written this appears to approve military action in Syria by the United States,” Durbin said.

McConnell’s nonbinding sense of the Senate amendment would urge the administration to certify that certain conditions have been met “for the enduring defeat of al Qaeda and ISIS before initiating any significant withdrawal of United States forces from Syria or Afghanistan.” 

Durbin argues that the wording suggests that in voting for McConnell’s measure, senators would be voicing support for keeping troops in Syria and Afghanistan without Congress previously authorizing military action in Syria. 

Durbin added that McConnell’s amendment was not a “toss out” amendment but gets to the “heart” of Congress’s constitutional authority. 

McConnell in a Wednesday floor speech accused Democrats of trying to “stonewall” in an effort to avoid exposing “rifts” within their caucus. 

“I honestly did not expect this would be controversial stuff. I didn’t expect that my colleagues across the aisle would make a partisan stand and try to block this straightforward ‘sense of the Senate’ amendment — when it really just restates what most of us thought was a broad, bipartisan consensus about American leadership in the world,” McConnell said. 

McConnell’s spokesman also characterized Democrats as “severely conflicted” about whether or not to vote for the amendment. 

“They largely agree with the president on withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan (and everywhere else); makes sense, that’s politically popular, the left is isolationist militarily and it polls well. But on the other hand, they can’t possibly be seen as standing with the president when even Republicans are ‘rebuking’ him,” the aide said.

Durbin told The Hill that the caucus had not made a decision about whether they would filibuster McConnell’s proposal. The GOP leader will need to flip at least seven Democrats to get over a 60-vote hurdle if Republicans are united. 

On the BDS provision, Democrats have offered several amendments aimed at changing the language.

One proposal, from Booker, would exclude sole proprietorships from state or local government laws divesting from companies that engage in BDS activities.

The Senate bill, if it passes the upper chamber, is likely a non-starter in the House because of the anti-BDS language. 

“I can say that the overwhelming majority of the House Democratic Caucus is strongly pro-Israel,” Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesAnti-Trump vets join Steyer group in pressing Democrats to impeach Trump Appetite for Democratic term limits fizzling out Jeffries dismisses optics: We wanted testimony from Mueller, not Robert De Niro MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters during a press conference. “That said, we are not going to allow the Senate Republicans to move legislation forward that really is a political stunt, and not a serious effort at advancing American foreign policy interests.”