WASHINGTON — The United States Senate overwhelmingly passed a motion to advance controversial legislation on Monday to curb boycotts against Israel, its first move since returning from a several-week government shutdown.
The Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act, known as S.1, advanced in the upper chamber by a vote of 74-19. The measure — called a motion to proceed to consideration — allows the legislation to be debated and voted on in the coming weeks.
The package included the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and the Combating BDS Act, bills that are both supported by most major Jewish organizations but vehemently opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and J Street on the grounds that it violates free speech.
While the Israel Anti-Boycott Act would make it illegal under federal statute to boycott the Jewish state, the Combating BDS Act would grant federal protection to the 26 states that have already passed similar laws targeting Israel boycotters.
The act also incorporates a separate measure to codify into federal law an agreement for the US to provide Israel with $38 billion over 10 years in security assistance.
The Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Obama administration, and has thus far been upheld by the Trump White House, but could be torn up at any time. Codifying it into law would protect the aid over the life of the agreement.
The act also included separate measures to aid Jordan’s government and Syrian civilians.
Every Republican voted to advance the legislative package while the Democratic senators were largely split.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer voted in favor of the bill while nearly all Senate Democrats eyeing a 2020 bid voted against it, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker were not present for the vote, although Booker has said in the past he supports the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and co-sponsored it.
Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, has been a consistent critic of the bills. “While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to peacefully engage in political activity,” he tweeted Monday. “It is clear to me that S.1 would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.”
While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to peacefully engage in political activity. It is clear to me that S.1 would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 28, 2019
There has been a fierce left-wing resistance to both the Israel Boycott Act and the Combating BDS Act, which Florida Senator Marco Rubio sought to push through as the first Senate bill introduced under the new Congress.
The bill was introduced again this week once the government reopened from a 35-day shutdown, the longest in American history.
It had been introduced several weeks ago, but was blocked as Democrats vowed to only consider legislation aimed at ending the shutdown.
To become law, S.1 would need to formally pass the Senate, then the House of Representatives, which is now under Democratic control, and be signed into law by the president.