Votes on Iran Highlight Capitol Hill Divide

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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Washington - Attempts to limit President Bush’s ability to wage war against Iran were narrowly defeated in Congress last week, in a legislative debate that underscored differences between House Democrats and pro-Israel activists on Capitol Hill.

The tussle revolved around two separate legislative amendments aimed at ruling out the possibility of the White House ordering preventive military action against Iran without prior consent from Congress. While the pro-Israel lobby opposed such measures, the measures split Israel’s Democratic supporters.

The amendments were brought to a vote as part of the Defense Authorization Bill for 2008 and were approved by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had promised the Democratic caucus that she would allow a vote on the issue. The first measure, proposed by Democratic Rep. Robert Andrews of New Jersey, tackled the Iranian issue from a funding standpoint. The declared purpose of the Andrews amendment was “to prevent funds authorized in the bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from being obligated or expended to plan a contingency operation in Iran.”

The second proposed amendment, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, goes one step further in attempting to limit the Bush administration by declaring that “no previously enacted law authorizes military action against Iran.”

The amendments limiting the White House’s ability to strike Iran caused a general divide of Democrats and Republicans along party lines, with almost all GOPers voting against the measures that would tie the presidents’ hands.

In another partisan debate revolving around an issue of concern to Jerusalem and the pro-Israel lobby, Democrats and Republicans quarreled over missile funding. Lawmakers of both parties were prepared to approve funding of the joint Israeli-American anti-missile system — the Arrow — which is seen as the Jewish state’s first line of defense against a possible Iranian attack. But in an attempt to secure more funding for other favored defense projects, House Republicans, led by Virginia’s Eric Cantor, tried to send the measure back to the committee. While Republicans argued that opening the debate over missile defense funding would not harm Israel, Democrats countered that such a maneuver would amount to “killing the bill altogether” and deny Israel the funding it needed for missile protection.

A last-minute deal prevented Congress from referring the issue back to the House Armed Services Committee and paved the way for the approval of a $205 million missile defense aid package for Israel that includes funding for the Arrow, a short-range missile defense system and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system.

The debate over the missile defense funding left Democrats bitter.

Senior members of the House Armed Services Committee came out against Illinois Republican Mark Kirk for invoking the Holocaust during the political debate. “If you could vote against a second genocide of the people of Israel,” Kirk said, “would you?”

A Democratic source said that the missile debate demonstrates the fact that issues relating to Israel are increasingly becoming part of Washington’s partisan quarrels. Referring to congressional Republicans, the Democratic source said, “They are playing a very dangerous game.”

In the words of one Democratic source that echoed the views of several of his fellow party members, the two amendments dealing with Iran served the purpose of “reminding the president of his constitutional duties.”

While the DeFazio amendment was rejected by a significant majority of 288-136, the Andrews amendment restricting funds lost by a narrow 216-212 margin, with 19 abstentions.

Pelosi did not take part in the votes, but House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer — a strong supporter of Israel and a close friend of leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — voted for requiring congressional approval for military action against Iran as did several other prominent Democratic Jewish lawmakers, including Rep. Tom Lantos of California, Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida and Reps. Anthony Weiner and Nita Lowey of New York.

A leading opponent of the amendment requiring congressional approval was another pro-Israel New York Democrat, Rep. Gary Ackerman, chair of the House’s Middle East subcommittee.

During the floor debate over the proposed amendments, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada was the strongest voice in opposition. “This is not the time to be tying our hands on Iran,” Berkley said, adding that taking the military option off the table would send the wrong message to Tehran and would allow the Iranian regime to “destroy the only democratic country and the United States’ most reliable ally in the region, Israel.”

According to a May 16 report in the congressional newspaper The Hill, Aipac, which “lobbied heavily to remove the Iran provision” when it was first introduced as part of the Defense supplemental bill, is now “likely to oppose” renewed attempts to pass the amendment. Congressional sources told the Forward that the pro-Israel lobby made clear to staffers on Capitol Hill that they oppose any measures that would limit the president’s options when confronting Iran.

Aipac sources, however, denied that the pro-Israel lobby played an active role in preventing the amendments from being approved. But one of them did say that “there are some who are pleased that [the amendments] were rejected.”

When similar amendments were presented in mid-March, Aipac was active in lobbying against imposing limitations on the administration’s options vis-à-vis Iran.

While taking a cautious approach in regard to military action against Iran, congressional Democrats are leading the way in imposing financial and economic pressure on Tehran. Last week, bills supporting divestment from Iran were introduced by Barney Frank of Massachusetts in the House and by Barack Obama of Illinois in the Senate. Both bills were co-sponsored by leading Republicans.

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