WASHINGTON — Senators Dean Heller (R-NV) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) ushered in the new Congressional session by proposing legislation Tuesday to force the Obama administration to change longstanding US policy and move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The bill, which stands little chance of surviving both Congress and the presidential veto pen, nonetheless represents the opening shots from a newly Republican Congress that has vowed to challenge presidential authority on key foreign policy questions.
It also comes as the Supreme Court readies to rule on a high profile case which could determine Congress’s ability to shape foreign policy and force the State Department to change course and recognize Jerusalem’s status on passports of Americans born in the city.
The Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2015 seeks to force the executive branch to uphold the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which calls for the relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv to the Israeli capital, but has been pushed off by pro forma presidential measures since.
“Almost fifteen years ago Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate,” Cruz, the bill’s cosponsor, wrote in a statement Tuesday. “It is my hope that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle support this important bill. It is long past due for our government to finally and unequivocally recognize Israel’s historical capital both in word and deed.”
Introduced late last week, the bill is headed for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, although there is no date scheduled for work to begin on advancing the legislation.
The bill’s stated purpose is “to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to relocate to Jerusalem the United States Embassy in Israel, and for other purposes,” and in addition to removing the ability of the president to delay moving the embassy, it includes a statement of policy that “it is the policy of the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel, both de jure and de facto.”
In practice, the bill strikes the language in the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 that gave the president waiver authority to delay the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the grounds that it would harm national security interests.
Every president since Bill Clinton has signed a presidential waiver every six months in order to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv, citing concerns that a move to Jerusalem would upset the prospects for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The bill would also require any official government document which lists countries and their capital cities to identify Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and proposes a partial freeze of State Department building funds until an embassy is constructed in Jerusalem.
The US has been reluctant to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel, and the CIA factbook notes that “Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1950, but the US, like all other countries, maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv.”
Heller’s legislation is similar to a 2011 attempt in the House to pass the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2011. That bill, which was cosponsored by 14 members of Congress, also sought to discontinue the Presidential waiver authority and thus effectively force the embassy’s move. That bill, however, did not make it out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In the new political environment in Washington, the embassy bill has a chance of passing both houses of Congress, where Republican lawmakers are jostling to challenge aspects of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. It will almost certainly, however, be felled by a presidential veto.
Congressional pressure on Obama
The bill is co-sponsored by Cruz, a Tea Party Republican thought to be a main contender for a GOP presidential run in 2016 and it is one of the first attempts to use the new Republican-controlled Congress to challenge Obama’s foreign policy decisions. In the coming weeks, a number of legislative initiatives are likely to attempt to shape foreign policy
Obama’s foreign policy is expected to be the epicenter of a number of battles waged between the White House and the Capitol under the new Congress which was sworn in last week.
Prominent Republicans have already indicated that the new Congress will push hard for additional sanctions on Iran. Options include reviving the legislation drafted last year by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) that would threaten Iran with additional sanctions if any nuclear deal falls through or is not reached within a specific timeframe. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) may also work to push their legislation, which would require committee hearings and a Congressional floor vote to approve any potential nuclear deal with Tehran.
“You will see a very vigorous Congress when it comes to Iran,” Graham promised during a December visit to Israel. “You will see a Congress making sure that sanctions are real and will be reimposed at the drop of a hat. You will see a Congress wanting to have any say about a final deal.”
The Kirk-Menendez bill enjoys the support of enough Democrats that it approaches the threshold for a veto-busting majority. With 54 Republicans in the Senate, the bill would need an additional 13 Democratic votes to override a presidential veto – and there are currently 11 Senate Democrats signed on to the bill as co-sponsors.
Supreme Court challenge
The anticipated battles over which branch of government has a say in determining foreign policy are not restricted to Pennsylvania Avenue. In the coming months, the Supreme Court is expected to deliver a long-anticipated ruling in Zivitofsky v. Kerry, in which the current policy of not writing “Jerusalem, Israel” as a place of birth in US passports is challenged.
At the heart of the case is legislation that — not unlike Cruz’s bill — seeks to shift the State Department’s policy on recognizing the status of Jerusalem. The law in question, passed in 2002, requires the secretary of state to honor requests to record Israel as the place of birth in US passports held by American citizens born in Jerusalem.
Then-president George W. Bush signed the bill into law, but issued a signing statement acknowledging that he would not actually uphold the law, as it “impermissibly interferes with the President’s constitutional authority to conduct the Nation’s foreign affairs and to supervise the unitary executive branch.”
The Supreme Court case, which originates in a request by the parents of Menachem Zivitofsky to write “Israel” as the place of birth in their Jerusalem-born son’s passport, is popular among court-watchers for its potential implications for Congress’s role in shaping foreign policy.
Although a narrow ruling that does not have sweeping implications for the shaping of foreign policy is expected, it is still possible that the Supreme Court could attempt to swat down attempts like Cruz’s to change the State Department from outside.