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.


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 McConnell (R-Ky.) that would urge President Trump 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 Booker (N.J.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). Sen Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with the Democrats, also opposed it. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is also seen as a possible 2020 candidate, voted to advance it, along with Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the third-ranking Democrat.

Sen. Dick Durbin (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.


“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 Jeffries (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.” 

Tags Amy Klobuchar BDS Bernie Sanders Chuck Schumer Cory Booker Dick Durbin Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Foreign policy Hakeem Jeffries Israel Kirsten Gillibrand Mitch McConnell Patty Murray Sherrod Brown Syria

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