It’s the first vote of the new United States Senate – but it’s doubling as a preview of the 2020 presidential campaign.
Senate Democrats on Tuesday night blocked a bill sponsored by Republican Senator Marco Rubio that includes aid for Israel and also controversial curbs on supporting the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
The vote was 56-44 in favor of proceeding to a vote but 60 votes were needed under Senate rules. Four Democrats sided with the Republicans: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Doug Jones of Alabama and Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voted no as a procedural move to allow him to reintroduce the measure later.
Many Democrats – including nearly all of the several senators presumed to be contemplating presidential runs – had sworn to work against any measure that doesn’t end the government shutdown, and so cast “no” votes. But the vote left Democrats with a tough choice: vote for a bill that many of them support but that won’t end the shutdown, or vote no and risk getting hammered in attack ads as being soft on Israel.
“This is a conscious attempt by Senate Republicans to use a vote on Israel as a wedge issue, knowing because of Trump’s actions on this that Democrats will be voting against it,” Ann Lewis, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Bill and Hillary Clinton, told the Forward. “I think this is a sample of what we will see now and for the next year.”
As majority leader, McConnell has the power to control when bills come up for debate. His choice to put Rubio’s bill at the top of the line is likely part of a longstanding party strategy of trying to portray Democrats as anti-Israel, said University of Florida political science professor Kenneth D. Wald, who studies politics in the American Jewish community.
“Republicans are never going to stop trying on this issue, because deep in their hearts, they believe Jews should be Republicans,” Wald said.
He cautioned that the move is unlikely to succeed in swaying Jewish voters. “They have trouble understanding that…Israel is a relatively small part of” what inspires American Jews to vote for one party over another, Wald said.
Still, Wald said the GOP may reap political benefits from forcing the debate. It not only creates a tough position for potential Democratic presidential candidates, but also signals both to evangelical Christian voters and pro-Israel Jewish donors that the Republican Party, reeling from a mixed midterm and a mercurial president who has disappointed many Israel hawks with his Syria strategy, is still the only one that is good for the Jewish state.
S.1 is actually a combination of four stalled bills that had to be reintroduced after they failed to advance in last year’s Congress. One aspect of S.1 would codify into law the 10-year, $38 billion military aid package that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-president Barack Obama agreed to in 2016. (The Senate bill was blocked last year by libertarian (Republican) Senator Rand Paul.)
The aid package has widespread bipartisan support, but S.1 also includes a more controversial measure: Rubio’s Combating BDS Act, which would ensure that state and local governments have the right to bar contracting with businesses that boycott Israel. More than half of all states have already passed such laws, though some have been overturned on First Amendment grounds by federal courts.
Combining the two bills needed to be done to get around Paul’s block, but it also forced Democrats who support the security assistance but oppose the anti-BDS laws, like New York senator and presumptive presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, into making tough choices.
In the last Congress, the Combating BDS Act had the support of 15 Democratic senators, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who is Jewish. But Schumer voted against the measure on Tuesday “because Senate Republicans should instead bring to the floor the bi-partisan House-passed bills to reopen the government,” his spokesman told JTA. “It’s unfortunate Leader McConnell and others have decided to use Israel to play politics.”
Of the nine senators widely reported to be considering presidential runs, eight have tweeted in the past two days that they are against advancing any non-shutdown-related measures. (The office of Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who co-sponsored the Combating BDS Act during the last Congress, did not respond to emailed questions about his stance on such votes.) All nine of them voted no on S.1.
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, the 2016 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, said on the floor of the Senate before the vote that he “strongly” supported U.S.-Israel military assistance. But, he added, “as passionate as I have been for the security of the nation of Israel, I’m every bit as passionate about the security of the United States. And I think the first business of this Senate should be to reopen the government of the United States.”
AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby that has pushed hard for the Combating BDS Act, insists that the bill passes constitutional muster. (Full disclosure: I interned for AIPAC for a college semester.) “We strongly support this legislation which contains pro-Israel provisions that have previously gained wide bipartisan support – and we urge the Senate to move as quickly as possible to adopt it,” spokesman Marshall Wittmann told Jewish Insider.
And the bill was also supported by the National Council of Young Israel, the hawkish Orthodox group.
“When it comes to the ‘Middle East Security Bill’ and its noble effort to combat the BDS movement, the Senate Democratic leadership cannot be allowed to hide behind procedural machinations in order to shield some of their members from having to face the public outcry that would ensue if and when their endorsement of the anti-Semitic effort comes to light,” the group said in a statement.
Rubio has claimed that the Democrats’ language on the shutdown is just a front to hide many members’ pro-BDS leanings.
The shutdown is not the reason Senate Democrats don’t want to move to Middle East Security Bill.
A huge argument broke out at Senate Dem meeting last week over BDS. A significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS & Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that.— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) January 7, 2019
But multiple Democratic senators have said that’s not true. While some Democrats are publicly opposed to the anti-BDS bill, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware told CNN that none of them personally support BDS (though two new House members do - Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan).
I hope a staffer wrote this tweet and when you see it you take it down. You know it isn’t true that “a significant # of Senate Dems support BDS”. Really dangerous to play politics w support for Israel. https://t.co/memVJa1H89— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) January 7, 2019
If Republicans try to use disagreements over a procedural vote to knock Democratic candidates on Israel next year, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time: During their 2018 race in Texas, Senator Ted Cruz repeatedly slammed then-Congressman Beto O’Rourke for voting against funding for Israel’s Iron Dome defensive missile system during the 2014 Gaza War - even though O’Rourke repeatedly explained that he cast his vote out of protest for the bill’s rushed process and was personally supportive of Iron Dome.
Steven Windmueller, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who studies American Jewish political behavior, cautioned that this particular congressional action would very likely not play a determining role in anyone’s vote in 2020. “But it may be part of a strategy to continually isolate Democrats by saying they are less than supportive of Israel, or problematic in their support,” he added.
He said he’ll be interested in monitoring what effect outspoken pro-Palestinian Democratic figures like Tlaib and Omar will have on longstanding Jewish affinity for the Democratic Party.
Wald also predicted that the Republicans would try to tie the small but growing pro-BDS group to the party at large.
“I expect Rashida Tlaib will be ‘the most influential Democrat in Congress’ when Republicans start election ads,” he said.
When Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted on Sunday his opposition to the anti-BDS law on both constitutional grounds and due to its timing during the shutdown, he was retweeted by Tlaib, who wrote, “They forgot what country they represent.” Many accused Tlaib of propagating the anti-Semitic trope of Jews having dual loyalties. Among those who spoke out: Marco Rubio.