Washington, DC – US legislation addressing security policy in the Middle East, including a measure taking aim at boycotts of Israel, failed to clear a key procedural hurdle on Tuesday, but politicians say the bills “will come back” after the partial government shutdown ends.
The legislation, introduced by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, consolidates four bills that did not make it through Congress last year.
If passed, the legislation would authorise $3.3bn annually in US military support for Israel, reauthorise the US-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act and impose financial sanctions on the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and companies or banks that do business with Syria.
Controversially, the fourth measure, titled the Combating BDS Act, would allow US states and localities to retaliate commercially against companies or individuals supporting boycott, divestment or sanction campaigns aimed at Israel.
“We must stand firm against the profoundly biased campaign to delegitimise the state of Israel,” Republican Senator Cory Gardner told Senators on Tuesday, describing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “vile” and “anti-Semitic”.
The Senate voted 56-44 on Tuesday to prevent further consideration, forestalling action on the underlying legislation that otherwise enjoys broad bipartisan support. Republicans need 60 votes.
On Twitter, Rubio said he would try for another vote to move forward with the bill later this week.
Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the bill “will come back and it will have very strong bipartisan support”.
“The problem right now is that there are those who feel very passionately that we should not do anything unless the government is open,” Menendez told Al Jazeera.
Key parts of the government shutdown on December 22 after Trump, fellow Republicans and Democrats failed to come to an agreement on the president’s demand for more than $5bn in funding for a wall on the US-Mexico border.
The anti-boycott bill raises constitutional legal issues in the United States, where the First Amendment prohibits government from restricting citizen’s speech. US judges in Kansas and Arizona struck down similar state laws in 2018. Twenty-six states have adopted anti-BDS measures.
Independent Senator Bernie Sanders criticised the measure on Twitter for punishing “Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activists”.
Newly sworn-in Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat and Palestinian-American who supports the BDS movement, condemned the bill on Twitter, saying, “this is the US where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality”.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy questioned Rubio’s assertion that Democrats voted against moving forward with the bill due to a “significant [number] of Senate Democrats [who] now support BDS” and that the party’s leaders “want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that”.
“He knows that nobody in the Senate Democratic caucus supports boycotting Israel. It’s ridiculous,” Murphy told Al Jazeera. “There have always been legitimate constitutional concerns about restrictions on peoples’ free speech. In fact, some of these state bills have been struck down. That is different than supporting the underlying movement.”
Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the anti-BDS measure’s inclusion in the wider bill “sends a message to Americans that they will be penalised if they dare to disagree with their government”.
The BDS Movement was launched in 2005 by Palestinians seeking to generate international pressure on Israel to respect Palestinian human rights. The effort draws from the anti-Apartheid campaign against South Africa of the 1980s and the earlier African-American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
The movement’s goals are to stop Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, grant of full rights of citizenship rights to Palestinians in Israel and ensure a right of return to Palestinian refugees.