Angry at the government shutdown and peeved over attempts to stifle anti-Israeli boycotts, Senate Democrats on Tuesday filibustered a bill that would have strengthened U.S. relationships in the Middle East while punishing the anti-Israel boycott movement.
Some Republicans said the vote smacked of anti-Semitism, but Democrats said the GOP showed skewed priorities in pushing a foreign policy bill at a time when hundreds of thousands of federal workers are on furlough.
The bill fell three votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster, with just four Democrats joining the GOP.
Republicans made clear they aren’t giving up, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaling more votes in the days ahead to try to break the filibuster.
He said the vote should have been a no-brainer, given that it included legislation Democrats themselves sponsored last year.
“They’ve gotten the government to shut down for two weeks, now they want to shut the Senate down,” he said. “They’re threatening to shut down efforts to protect our allies and strengthen our relationship with Israel.”
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, firmed up military cooperation with Jordan, provide humanitarian assistance to allies in the Middle East struggling with the fallout of the Syrian civil war, and authorized billions of dollars in security assistance and transfer of precision weapons to Israel.
But the most controversial part is a section authorizing state and local governments to refuse to do business with companies that boycott Israel or Israeli-linked corporations to protest the country’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
The movement, known as Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS), has already pressured some companies to heed its calls.
Roughly 26 states have passed laws, with bipartisan support, against the Israeli boycotts. One version of a state law required those looking to do business with states affirm that they aren’t part of a boycott, and another law prohibited state agencies from doing business with contractors who supported the boycott.
Democratic opponents Tuesday said the Senate bill amounted to trampling on the BDS movement’s rights.
“The right to free speech is the foundation of our democracy. Any legislation that encroaches on that foundation should be considered with great caution. I don’t believe that has been the case here,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The American Civil Liberties Union has already challenged four state laws that attempted to punish BDS and has won judgments. in Arizona and Kansas, with federal courts saying the laws ran afoul of the First Amendment.
The ACLU sent a letter to lawmakers Monday, urging them to vote against moving forward with the legislation.
Other Democrats said they were blocking action because they’re fed up with the partial government shutdown, now more than halfway through its third week.
“The Senate must reopen the government as the first order of business before proceeding with other bills,” Sen. Kamala Harris, California Democrat, tweeted Monday. “Federal workers and government contractors are suffering.”
But Republicans said Democrats, when they controlled the Senate during the 2013 shutdown, passed five bills through the chamber during that time.
The four Democrats who broke with party leaders Tuesday to back the bill were Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Kyrsten Sinema of Democrat, and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.
The final tally was 56-44, with Mr. McConnell switching his vote to “No” in order to be able to demand a revote later this week.
Mr. Rubio dismissed the attacks over the First Amendment, saying the measure is focused on foreign policy and influencing the actions of foreign governments.
“It’s not about free speech. It’s about foreign policy,” Mr. Rubio said on the chamber floor.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, North Dakota Republican, said Democrats who voted against the bill were caving to anti-Israeli activists on the far left.
The freshman senator said the bill’s “growing opposition from Senate Democrats may be nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to hide the rising anti-Semitism in their own party. Not only is that unacceptable, but it’s also not working.”