WASHINGTON – The 116th Congress was sworn in on Thursday with Democrats retaking control of the House of Representatives, dividing government once again after two years of single-party rule.
Nancy Pelosi reclaimed the speaker’s gavel after suppressing a rebellion from freshmen congressmen, who sought a new face in Democratic leadership.
Those same freshmen – including Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York – entered Congress vowing to forge a new path for liberals on Israel policy in Washington in favor of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American women ever elected to Congress, arrived for her swearing-in wearing a traditional Palestinian dress. She supports a one-state solution and does not believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
Linda Sarsour, a controversial Palestinian activist staunchly in favor of the BDS movement, was on Capitol Hill to attend Tlaib’s swearing in. A world map in her new office was marked with a Post-it marking Israel as Palestine just hours before Tlaib took her oath, on a translated Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
She and Omar plan on leading a trip to the West Bank as an alternative to a traditional trip for freshmen congressmen to Israel led by AIPAC, the largest Israel advocacy organization in Washington.
But Pelosi last month shrugged off those members as part of an “extreme Left” unrepresentative of the greater caucus.
“We have people very well placed to share our values in terms of Israel in the heart and in spirit,” Pelosi told the Israeli-American Council in December, listing several future committee chairs with staunch records friendly to Israel. “Remove all doubt in your mind. It’s just a question of not paying attention to a few people who may want to go their own way.”
Several Jewish members will take control of critical committees through which funding and policy legislation is passed. Eliot Engel of New York will lead the House Foreign Relations Committee and Nita Lowey of New York will helm the Appropriations Committee. Additionally, Jerry Nadler of New York will chair the Judiciary Committee and Adam Schiff of California will spear the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in their investigations of the president.
At the time, Pelosi was asked what she expected would result from a White House peace effort between Israelis and Palestinians, likely to rile debate on Capitol Hill over the best path forward in the storied conflict. When Pelosi said she hoped for an endorsement of a two-state solution, she received boos from the conservative crowd.
“I know there is controversy,” she replied, “but understand the extreme Left wants a one-state solution.”
The Jewish Democratic Council of America praised Thursday’s milestone as an opportunity to “move our country forward.”
“JDCA looks forward to working with the new Congress on our top priorities, which include promoting social justice, human rights, and freedoms; comprehensive and humane immigration reform; combating antisemitism and other forms of hatred and bigotry; protecting democratic institutions and the right to vote; supporting the US-Israel relationship and Israel’s security; defending against climate change and other environmental threats; advocating for common-sense gun reforms; and supporting access to affordable healthcare for all Americans,” the organization stated.
The new congress includes a record number of women and minorities.
Republicans kept control of the Senate, and actually increased their majority by two seats, having taken advantage of a difficult electoral map for Senate Democrats last year.
While a new legislature has been sworn in, a government shutdown continues over the president’s insistence on congressional funding for a border wall between Mexico and the US. Pelosi says that Democrats will not offer any money for a wall that is practically useless and symbolically hateful.
And with the new year, old legislation that did not pass will have to be reintroduced, including the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a bill that seeks to criminally punish participation in international BDS efforts on the federal level.
Several establishment Democrats, including Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, have opposed the move as an infringement on Americans’ constitutional free speech protections.