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Alma Rutgers Reopening government, not MidEast act, must be priority

January 13, 2019

It’s hard to believe: Reopening the government is not a priority for Senate Republicans.

Before Christmas, the Senate voted to fund the government into February without the Great Wall of Trump, a unanimous vote. The Senate could replicate this vote with a veto-proof majority and end President Trump’s prolonged government shutdown over the Great Wall that should never be built. But the Republican Trump-enablers are not so inclined. They forget that Congress is a co-equal branch of government, not a rubber stamp for the president.

Not only has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow the House bills that would end the shutdown to even come to the Senate floor for a vote, but also he and Senate Republicans have made the “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019” the Senate’s very first order of business, Senate Bill 1, taking precedence over addressing the government shutdown.

Monday, in response to emails I received from various organizations, I urged Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, to oppose this bill.

Happily, they were among the Senate Democrats who blocked the bill from going forward on Tuesday evening, and again on Thursday afternoon. McConnell called for the second vote in the hope that some Democrats would change their minds. With all but a handful of Senate Democrats opposed, the bill twice this week failed to get the 60 votes needed for cloture.

Thank you Senators Blumenthal and Murphy.

Senate failure to address the urgent need to reopen the government also reflects a failure to recognize the pain the shutdown is causing the families of 800,000 government employees. By making the foreign policy bill their top priority, Senate Republicans have not only demonstrated a lack of compassion for the affected government employees, but also have shamefully engaged in a strategy designed to politicize support for Israel.

Senate Bill 1 is an appropriations bill that earmarks security assistance for Israel, reauthorizes a defense cooperation agreement with Jordan, sanctions the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and includes protections for Syrian civilians. It also includes the “Combatting BDS Act of 2019,” with Florida Senator Marco Rubio the principal proponent.

BDS refers to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, organized by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which promotes punitive measures against Israel for its occupation of the West Bank, its alleged unequal treatment of Israeli Palestinians, and its opposition to a right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Almost all Congressional Democrats oppose the BDS movement (two newly elected congresswomen — Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib from Michigan and Somali American Ilhan Omar from Minnesota — may be the only exceptions). Rubio, however, has made the false claim that Democratic opposition to S.1 reflects BDS support among Democrats.

“You know it isn’t true that ‘a significant# of Senate Dems support BDS’,” tweeted our Connecticut Senator Murphy in response to Rubio. “Really dangerous to play politics w support for Israel.”

Democratic strategist, Ann Lewis, sees such accusations against Democrats as part of a Republican strategy to paint Democrats as anti-Israel going into the 2020 election. “This is a conscious attempt by Senate Republicans to use a vote on Israel as a wedge issue, knowing because of Trump’s actions on this that Democrats will be voting against it,” said Lewis, as quoted in The Forward. “I think this is a sample of what we will see now and for the next year.”

While most components of S.1 enjoy bipartisan support, the anti-BDS provision is controversial. It enables state, county, and local governments to sanction entities, and indirectly individuals, that support the BDS movement. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes such governmental interference with First Amendment guarantees. The anti-BDS provision creates a slippery slope that the courts will likely deem unconstitutional.

J Street, a pro-Israel organization, has always voiced opposition to the BDS movement. At the same time, however, J Street opposes the anti-BDS provision. J Street shares the ACLU’s First Amendment concerns, but also opposes this provision because it fails to distinguish Jewish settlements in the Israeli occupied West Bank from Israel proper, thereby encouraging settlement activity that’s contrary to what’s been U.S. policy for over 50 years.

But this debate is for another day. The Senate must first do its job and reopen our government.

Alma Rutgers served in Greenwich town government for 25 years. Her blog is at blog.ctnews.com/rutgers/

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