Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Cameron Kasky asks Senator Marco Rubio if he will continue to accept money from the NRA.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MICHAEL LAUGHLIN/POOL)
WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats joined their Republican colleagues on Monday to proceed with a bill that authorizes state and local governments to combat boycotts of Israel, marking a significant development in Washington’s pushback against the BDS movement.
The Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, or S.1, split the Senate Democratic caucus, which was torn over the constitutionality of legislation involving a core First Amendment right to freedom of speech. And while the bill now can proceed to a full vote on the Senate floor – where it is sure to pass – its future is in doubt in the House, where Democrats are in control and far more divided on the matter.
Democrats who voted in favor said the legislation was grounded in Congress’s constitutional role of regulating interstate commerce. The bill effectively grants states the right to divest from or deny investments in businesses boycotting the Jewish state.
They also said the legislation pushes back against those seeking to discriminate on the basis of national origin – the legal basis of several court-tested laws.
But those opposed said the bill fundamentally challenged Americans’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression. The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the bill, claiming that it violated the spirit of the Bill of Rights.
J Street, a left-leaning organization that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, campaigned against the bill. But most other Israel advocacy groups supported the legislation, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which represents Jewish Democrats in the capital.
“JDCA strongly supports US military aid to Israel, US defense cooperation with Jordan, and US sanctions against the Syrian regime,” the organization said in a statement, referring to two other, less controversial pillars of the legislation. “JDCA also opposes the global Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement against Israel.”
“JDCA supported the Israel Anti-Boycott Act in the 115th Congress, supports the Combating BDS Act, and supports S.1,” the organization continued. “At the same time, JDCA recognizes that there is no consensus as to the best way to legislate the BDS issue given legitimate free speech concerns.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had put a hold on the legislation – and all other legislation – throughout the first month of the new Congress, while the government was in a shutdown. But he led a majority of Democratic senators on Monday in support of the bill.
Among those who voted against the legislation were Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, Dianne Feinstein of California and Gary Peters of Michigan, as well as three Democratic presidential candidates: Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to peacefully engage in political activity,” Sanders wrote on Twitter after the vote. “It is clear to me that S.1 would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.”
Two other presidential contenders – Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey – were out of town and missed the vote. But Booker has said in recent weeks that he supports anti-BDS legislation.
After passing a 60-vote threshold to end debate on the measure, the bill now proceeds to a full floor vote that has yet to be scheduled. It will then be up to Democratic leadership in the House to decide what to do with it.
One Democratic House source says it is unclear how leadership will proceed.
“It depends on what it looks like coming out of the Senate,” the senior aide said.
Debate on the House floor would take on an entirely different tone than was witnessed in the Senate, as two sitting Democratic members of the lower chamber – Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota – openly support the BDS movement.
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