Several influential senior Democratic senators said on Wednesday they and other senators are considering boycotting an upcoming speech to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest the decision by House Republicans to disregard protocol and invite the foreign leader without the involvement and blessing of the White House.
“Colleagues of mine are very concerned about it and I’m troubled by it. I won’t name names, of course,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat who is also a close ally of President Barack Obama. “It’s a serious mistake by the speaker and the prime minister. The relationship between Israel and the United States has been so strong, so bipartisan.”
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Durbin said he hasn’t decided whether to attend the March 3 speech to a joint meeting of Congress. In his address, Netanyahu is expected to criticize the controversial negotiations the Obama administration is spearheading with Iran aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Those talks face a critical deadline at the end of March.
“One of my closest friends – one of the strongest supporters of Israel – described this Boehner tactic as a disaster, a terrible disaster for Israel,” Durbin said, referring to Republican House Speaker John Boehner who invited Netanyahu. “I won’t speak for any other members but they’ve been talking to me about what is the right way to react to what could turn out to be a divisive event.”
Asked about a boycott, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who is Jewish and the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said “there are people discussing that.”
She hasn’t decided if she will attend the speech, which will take place in the House chamber. But she is deeply concerned about Netanyahu’s appearance, in part, because it is scheduled just days before the prime minister faces voters in Israeli elections.
“I take it very seriously,” Feinstein said. “My concern is that it is obviously political and it uses the backdrop of the United States House of Representatives and the Senate two weeks before a political campaign and violates all the protocol that’s always existed in terms of working this out with the President and I don’t think that helps Israel.”
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he is still weighing whether to show up.
“I think it’s inappropriate both from in terms of our country and their country,” he said.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, would not say if he would attend.
“One of the most important pillars of the enduring, strong relationship between the United States and Israel is it has always been strongly bipartisan and I am concerned by some of the elements of the timing of the speech,” he said.
It’s not clear how many House and Senate Democrats will skip the speech, but if there is a large number of absences it could be embarrassing to Netanyahu. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said he plans to go but said it should be a “personal decision” by senators as to what they do.
One key Democrat who says he’s likely to attend is Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I respect their views,” he said of those considering boycott. “From my perspective, if he is here I will probably be attending.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said it would be a mistake for Democrats to skip the speech.
“I think that would not be appropriate treatment of the prime minister of Israel, and I’m sure they can respond to their constituents as to why they would do that,” he said.
“The overriding reason he was invited is because of our concerns with the negotiation with Iran, which will then allow Iran to become a nuclear power,” McCain said. “There is not confidence on the part of Republicans in the negotiations that are going on. We believe they’ve already given away, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, too much. That’s why we want to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
In the House, letters are being circulated by members from each party. The Democratic letter calls for Netanyahu to postpone his speech until after the Israeli elections; the GOP letter supports Boehner’s decision to invite the Israeli leader.
Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York organized a meeting in his office on Wednesday morning with Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer.
Israel said it was a “candid” discussion and members told Dermer there was “deep concern” that Israel was being used as a political football by House Speaker John Boehner.
According to a source in the meeting, Reps. Nita Lowey of New York, Ted Deutch of Florida, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Sander Levin of Michigan and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida attended the session.
Israel plans to attend the speech, but said, “The roll out of the speech is getting in the way of the substance.”
“I get the sense that they realize that if they had a chance to do this over again they would have done it in a different way,” he added.
Israel said Vice President Joe Biden hasn’t made a decision yet about whether to sit next to Boehner behind Netanyahu during the speech and “hopefully a way will be found to defuse an unnecessarily tense environment.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Biden takes his job, which includes presiding over joint meetings of Congress, very seriously, but added the vice president’s schedule for that week had not been set.
“There’s only one time in which the vice president hasn’t been there, and it’s when he’s been out of the country,” Earnest said during his daily press briefing. “So as we get to more details for the first week in March locked down on the vice president’s schedule, we’ll have more to say about this.”
The White House has said Obama is not meeting with Netanyahu because it was too close to the prime minister’s upcoming election, and is still weighing that policy as they decide Biden’s schedule.
Asked if it was “dangerous” that some Democrats might purposefully skip the speech, Earnest said the President doesn’t think it would be a positive the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is viewed through a partisan lens.
“The President believes that individual members of Congress ought to decide for themselves. That’s certainly appropriate,” he added.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, who co-authored a letter to Boehner urging him to reschedule the speech told CNN he hasn’t made a decision yet on whether he will attend. But he said, “This is not about the prime minister, this is about the speaker.”
“We shouldn’t be interfering in a foreign election – which we are doing – and we certainly shouldn’t be inviting a foreign leader from Canada, Palau, Peru or Israel to rebut our President on a foreign policy matter,” Ellison said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi plans to attend the session, an aide said. She met Wednesday with the speaker of the Israeli Knesset.
“The leader expressed her concern that casting a political apple of discord into the relationship is not the best way forward given the formidable challenges our two countries are facing together,” Drew Hammill, her spokesman, following the meeting.
An aide to Boehner said the speaker won’t change the date of the speech.