Yesterday, Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the chief Democratic sponsor of the Combating BDS Act of 2018, a bill with bipartisan support that was scheduled to be voted on tomorrow as part of the omnibus Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act, tweeted that “The Senate should not take up any bills unrelated to reopening the government until @SenateMajLdr lets us vote on exactly that.” Because the Act was the first bill introduced this Senate term, the announcement appeared to be a political victory for Democrats who either oppose anti-BDS legislation or who support the boycott movement.
When asked about why the law isn’t moving forward, a spokesperson from Cardin’s office told Tablet, “Senators don’t think we should proceed to any other business because of the shutdown.” When asked when and whether the legislation might be brought up for a vote once the shutdown ends, the spokesperson replied, “That’s up to the leadership in terms of which bills come forward when…We’ll discuss it once the government reopens.”
Along with Cardin, it’s reported that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will vote to block a debate planned for the bill on Tuesday night. The “no” votes are supposed to be a protest of the current partial government shutdown. Senator Schumer did not provide a comment on the matter to Tablet despite multiple attempts to reach him and assurances from his office that a response was forthcoming.
(UPDATE: After publication of this article, a spokesman for Senator Schumer’s office provided Tablet with this statement: “Senator Schumer will vote against proceeding to S.1 because Senate Republicans should instead bring to floor the bi-partisan House-passed bills to reopen the government. It’s unfortunate Leader McConnell and others have decided to use Israel to play politics.”)
While there is disagreement on the Hill over the extent of internal Democratic opposition to the anti-BDS bill, sources from both parties confirmed to Tablet that it sparked internal disagreements when it came up for discussion at a meeting last Thursday. Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted this morning that “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.”
At minimum, Rubio is alleging that some Senate Democrats oppose the anti-BDS legislation on substance because of the supposedly growing popularity of the boycott movement within the Democratic Party. If Rubio is correct, then Cardin’s call not to advance the legislation represents a signal victory for Democratic BDS supporters, some of whom are now elected members of the House of Representatives. Rashida Tlaib, who tweeted that supporters of the bill “forgot which country they represent” yesterday, publicly backed the BDS movement in early December, nearly a month after being elected. Fellow first-term Democrat Ilhan Omar is also on record as supporting the movement.
Since the political program of singling Israel out for boycott and sanction was a radical position even among progressives only a decade ago, the fact that it’s now espoused by even a couple of elected Democratic members of Congress is noteworthy. But how noteworthy?
This afternoon, Cardin responded to Rubio on Twitter: “I’ve worked closely with you on BDS, @MarcoRubio, and disagree with you here. The government #shutdown is a crisis, impacting millions of Americans and our economy. We can’t simply proceed with business as usual. Reopening the govt must be our first priority. #EndTheTrumpShutdown.”
Significantly, the tweet does not deny Rubio’s assertion that “A huge argument broke out at Senate Dem meeting last week.” Hill sources have confirmed to Tablet that the meeting in the question occurred last Thursday and that the anti-BDS measure was discussed. When Tablet noted that the tweet that does not address Rubio’s claims about the meeting, Sen. Cardin’s spokesperson replied that the Senator “believes that the priority for the Senate right now should be reopening the government.”
The legislative history of the bill may also be a factor in the Democrats’ decision to delay or drop the bill. Last week, Republican leadership in the Senate bundled the bipartisan-supported BDS bill into a package of three other, less controversial pieces of legislation related to US aid to Israel and Jordan. The other three laws could not advance by unanimous consent in the Senate because of a hold placed by the libertarian-minded Republican senator Rand Paul.
The anti-BDS legislation may also be tricky for an entirely different reason. Although it’s rare for Democrats to endorse the boycott movement, laws seeking to deny government contracts to entities that boycott Israel have been accused of infringing on the right to free speech.
At the same time, it is also clear that BDS has won the approval of increasingly powerful mainstream left-wing activist constituencies, including the Democratic Socialists of America. When the bill first advanced out of the Senate Appropriations Committee in June of 2016, nine members voted against it, all of them Democrats. Depending on who you ask, including the anti-BDS bill as part of a larger legislative package saved Democratic senators, several of whom are likely to run for president in 2020, from taking a politically embarrassing vote for or against an anti-BDS measure that is clearly controversial within the party.
Cardin and other Democrats are locked in a shutdown battle with Congressional Republicans and Donald Trump’s White House in which they need as much leverage as possible, which means that conditioning all legislation on an end to the standoff could turn out to be a canny political move. Meanwhile, the optics of moving forward on even a bipartisan bill that’s primarily helpful to foreign states are undeniably tricky with the government still closed. Still, Republicans believe that Democrats are using the shutdown as an excuse not to address the very real political dilemmas that anti-BDS measures currently raise for them.
“A significant number of Democrats don’t want to vote against BDS,” a senior GOP source involved in negotiations over the bill claimed, asserting that if legislation doesn’t move forward when the government reopens, it will be clear which side is winning in the debate about Israel among Democrats.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.