Trapped Democrats Can't Decide on Netanyahu Speech

Many Democrats in Congress say they are undecided on attending the speech. Aipac has some advice for them.

Who will join them?

Photographer: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Caught between their party loyalty to President Barack Obama and the popularity of Israel in Congress, most Senate Democrats refuse to say whether they will attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress next week.

When Netanyahu addresses lawmakers March 3 to talk about the threat of the Iranian nuclear program and his objections to the deal being negotiated in Geneva, Republicans will attend with enthusiasm. But there could be scores of empty seats on the Democratic aisle, which House Speaker John Boehner would have to fill with staffers. Democrats are unsure if they will stage a boycott in protest of the way the speech came about, with Boehner and Netanyahu intentionally keeping their plans from the White House.

Compounding the pressure on Democrats is that thousands of supporters of Israel will be in Washington and Capitol Hill this weekend for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is urging members to lobby their representatives to go to the speech.

We spoke with almost a dozen Democratic Senators Tuesday who said they still haven’t decided. Among them is Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein of California, who wrote a letter (with Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois) Monday to Netanyahu asking him to meet Democrats separately in their offices while he is Washington.

“I won’t make a decision on that for a while,” she told us, insisting there was no organized Democratic boycott. “But it does mean that I would like an opportunity to sit down and talk to him rather than listening to a speech of red lines. It isn’t a boycott, it's individuals making up their own minds. There is no boycott.”

Netanyahu declined the offer from Feinstein and Durbin, writing that meeting with Democrats in private “could compound the misperception of partisanship in my upcoming visit.” National Security Advisor Susan Rice accused Netanyahu of playing to Republicans in an interview Monday on PBS with Charlie Rose, saying the Israeli prime minister “injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate, I think it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship.” 

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee that covers the Middle East, told us Tuesday he also is still weighing whether to attend the speech and he acknowledged that he is getting calls from his supporters in Connecticut encouraging him to go.

“I haven’t decided yet. This is a breach of protocol not a breach of policy, so I’m still trying to make sure I’m not making more of this than it deserves to be,” he said. “A lot of us are very angry and I think we’ve got to figure out how serious of an issue this really is.”

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia declined to say whether he would attend: “I think the speech should be postposed. I’m just going to leave it there for now.”

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey wouldn't say anything on the matter. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said he was “expecting to” attend but wasn’t 100 percent sure. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware said he would make up his mind after meeting with the Israeli ambassador.

Nonetheless, many Democratic leaders have signaled they will attend. The list includes House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and, if he is physically able while recovering from surgery, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Senate Armed Services Committee member Bill Nelson of Florida will also be there.

“I always attend foreign government leader speeches,” Nelson told us Tuesday. “I think the optics are terrible because of the partisanship.”

A few Congressional Democrats have made it clear they will not attend, including both Vermont senators, Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee's state and foreign operations subcommittee.

Aipac, which prides itself on its bipartisan character and influence, is caught in the middle. The group's leaders were not informed by Republican leaders or Netanyahu's office that he was planning to address Congress. This is stunning in light of the group's traditional role as a custodian and advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Ahead of the annual policy gathering, Aipac is making the best out of an uncomfortable situation. One official from the organization said the group is aware of how many Democrats are uncomfortable with how the invitation came about.

Persuading Democrats to attend the Netanyahu speech is not the primary goal next week for the more than 15,000 Aipac volunteers who will descend on the capital. Congressional staffers working on the issue say they expect the volunteers will ask lawmakers to co-sponsor the Kirk-Menendez bill on Iran sanctions, which Obama says he will veto, but will not press for a vote before the March 24 deadline for a political framework to come out of the Geneva talks. 

Democrats cannot stay on the fence for long. They will have to soon decide whether to side with the White House or with many of their constituents and their own desires not to make the partisan divide over Netanyahu’s speech any worse than it has to be. If there are dozens of empty seats in the chamber on March 3, they risk shifting the blame for the partisanship in the U.S.-Israel relationship onto themselves.

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