Washington: The Senate overwhelmingly approved a Middle East policy bill on Tuesday that included both a rebuke to President Donald Trump over his withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan and a contested measure to allow state and municipal governments to punish companies that boycott, divest from or place sanctions on Israel.
The measure, which passed 77-23, started as the kind of routine policy bill that passes the Senate with little to no opposition.
It reauthorises at least $3.3 billion in military financing to Israel and extends security aid to Jordan, imposes new sanctions on individuals who provide support to the Syrian government and directs the Treasury Department to determine whether the Central Bank of Syria is engaged in money laundering.
“This represents the broad consensus of this body about our nation’s responsibilities as an ally and a partner,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority leader, said Tuesday.
But the late inclusions of the anti-boycott, divest and sanction - or anti-BDS - provision and an amendment by McConnell reproaching the president for a “precipitous withdrawal” of troops from Syria and Afghanistan raised some concerns in both parties.
The measure opposing the Israel boycott, drafted by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., appeared to be calculated, in part, to drive a wedge between Israel supporters in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party and a younger, activist wing more willing to challenge unconditional US support of the Jewish state.
Senate Democrats mulling presidential runs recoiled at the McConnell amendment, making a rare alliance with Trump as they declared it was time for US troops to come home from Afghanistan, the longest war in the nation’s history.
Both pieces of legislation face dim prospects in the House. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the No. 5 Democrat, told reporters last month that leadership would not “allow the Senate Republicans to move legislation forward that really is a political stunt.”
House Democrats are expected to pass the components addressing Jordan and security assistance to Israel, as they did last Congress, and the House has already passed the Syria provisions.
Republicans overwhelmingly backed Rubio’s bill, reigniting a fracas over political support for the BDS movement, which seeks to pressure Israel into ending the occupation of the West Bank, among other things.
A cluster of Democratic lawmakers, including Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Somali refugee; Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the first Palestinian-American woman in the House; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have emerged as vocal critics of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and Republicans have sought to tar the party with their beliefs.
“It is designed to see that the BDS is tamped down and is not appropriate to use against our friend, Israel,” said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Some senators, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. who caucuses with the Democrats, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, refused to support the bill, citing concerns raised by activist groups that the provision was an unconstitutional stifling of their right to protest.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the lone Republican opposing the bill, delivered an impassioned denunciation Tuesday.
“The Founding Fathers would roll over in their graves if they knew what we were doing today,” he said, adding that the Boston Tea Party was political speech in the form of a boycott.
“Free speech, the First Amendment, is about allowing language you don’t like,” Paul said.
“It’s about allowing boycotts you may not like.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also upbraided the legislation, saying in a statement that “the Senate chose politics over the Constitution and trampled on the First Amendment rights of all Americans.”
Rubio swiftly pushed back.
“While the First Amendment protects the right of individuals to free speech, it does not protect the right of entities to engage in discriminatory conduct,” he wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times.
“Moreover, state governments have the right to set contracting and investment policies, including policies that exclude companies engaged in discriminatory commercial- or investment-related conduct targeting Israel.”
Most Democratic senators considering a presidential run voted against the legislation, including Sanders and Brown as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado voted for it.
Those senators also voted last week to shield the president from the rebuke sponsored by McConnell after his abrupt decision, announced on Twitter, to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
Further stoking concerns about the administration’s strategy in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of the US Central Command, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he was not consulted before Trump announced the withdrawal on Twitter and “was not aware of the specifics of the announcement.”
But a number of Democratic senators have maintained that Trump made the correct decision to remove troops from seemingly intractable battles.
“The American people do not want endless war,” Sanders said in a statement.
“It is the job of Congress to responsibly end these military interventions and bring our troops home, not to come up with more reasons to continue them, as this amendment does.”
Senate Republicans were more than happy to sign onto the rebuke, and advanced the amendment Monday, 70-26, the second time in three months the Republican-led chamber sought to put Trump’s foreign policy on notice.