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 McConnellOn The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate Democrats say White House isn't budging in coronavirus relief stalemate MORE (R-Ky.) that would urge President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' 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 BookerOn The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden, Harris make first public appearance as running mates Booker hits back at Trump tweet, mocks misspelling of name MORE (N.J.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownWhat Trump's orders will and won't do for payroll taxes, unemployment benefits Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors Democrats urge controversial Pentagon policy nominee to withdraw MORE (Ohio), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandExpanding our health force can save lives and create jobs simultaneously Sanders offers bill to tax billionaires' wealth gains during pandemic Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisCandidates on Biden's VP list were asked what they thought Trump would nickname them as part of process: report Bass on filling Harris's Senate spot: 'I'll keep all my options open' Election security advocates see strong ally in Harris MORE (Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenNew poll shows Markey with wide lead over Kennedy in Massachusetts Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Chris Wallace: Kamala Harris 'not far to the left despite what Republicans are gonna try to say' MORE (Mass.). Sen Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez's 2nd grade teacher tells her 'you've got this' ahead of DNC speech Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Chris Wallace: Kamala Harris 'not far to the left despite what Republicans are gonna try to say' MORE (I-Vt.), who caucuses with the Democrats, also opposed it. 

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharElection security advocates see strong ally in Harris The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup MORE (D-Minn.), who is also seen as a possible 2020 candidate, voted to advance it, along with Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOcasio-Cortez's 2nd grade teacher tells her 'you've got this' ahead of DNC speech New poll shows Markey with wide lead over Kennedy in Massachusetts Lawmakers push Trump to restore full funding for National Guards responding to pandemic MORE (N.Y.) and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayPelosi huddles with chairmen on surprise billing but deal elusive House approves two child care bills aimed at pandemic GOP, Democratic relief packages B apart on vaccine funding MORE (Wash.), the third-ranking Democrat.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats ramp up warnings on Russian election meddling The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Negotiators signal relief bill stuck, not dead White House officials, Democrats spar over legality, substance of executive orders 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 JeffriesJeffries on Senate coronavirus bill: 'Totally irrelevant' Gohmert tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Brawls on Capitol Hill on Barr and COVID-19 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.”