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 McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by UANI — House Dems charge Trump with abuse, obstruction of Congress in impeachment articles Senate must take up Voting Rights Advancement Act without delay Krystal Ball: Is this how Bernie Sanders will break the establishment? MORE (R-Ky.) that would urge President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe 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 BookerSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges The great AI debate: What candidates are (finally) saying about artificial intelligence MORE (N.J.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: White House, Dems edge closer to trade deal | GOP worries about Trump concessions | DOJ argues Congress can't sue Trump on emoluments | Former Fed chief Volcker dies Both sides have reason to want speedy Trump impeachment trial Lawmakers battle over future of Ex-Im Bank MORE (Ohio), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Defense: Bombshell report reveals officials misled public over progress in Afghanistan | Amazon accuses Trump of 'improper pressure' in Pentagon contract decision | House Judiciary holds final impeachment hearing Gillibrand demands hearing following release of 'Afghanistan Papers' White House, Congress near deal to give 12 weeks paid parental leave to all federal workers MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Krystal Ball: Media turns on Buttigieg, will this end him? Senate Democrats demand Trump fire Stephen Miller MORE (Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Buttigieg surrogate on candidate's past consulting work: 'I don't think it matters' Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges MORE (Mass.). Sen Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate The media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges MORE (I-Vt.), who caucuses with the Democrats, also opposed it. 

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharPoll: Biden leads Democratic field, Warren drops to third place 'Minor league cities' need new federal partnership The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today 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 SchumerKrystal Ball: Is this how Bernie Sanders will break the establishment? TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings, inflaming tensions Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments MORE (N.Y.) and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments Obstacles remain for deal on surprise medical bills Key House and Senate health leaders reach deal to stop surprise medical bills MORE (Wash.), the third-ranking Democrat.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSupreme Court poised to hear first major gun case in a decade Protecting the future of student data privacy: The time to act is now Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban 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 JeffriesThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today Live coverage: Witnesses say Trump committed impeachable offenses Pelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers 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.”