Thanks to a partial boycott by Democrats, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t be speaking to every member of Congress when he addresses Tuesday’s joint session.
But despite the controversy — perhaps in some ways because of it — his speech on Iran is expected, after last week’s draining Department of Homeland Security debate, to refocus Washington’s attention on the Middle East.
Dozens of House Democrats hailing from various contingents within the caucus — Jewish, progressive and African-American, primarily — plan to boycott Netanyahu, who has been sharply critical of the Obama administration’s handling of negotiations aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
They say it was inappropriate for House and Senate Republican leaders to invite Netanyahu to speak two weeks before the Israeli elections and in the midst of the tense international negotiations with Iran without consulting their Democratic counterparts, let alone officials at the White House.
But just because certain members won’t be on the House floor, doesn’t mean they won’t be paying attention to Netanyahu’s remarks.
It also won’t preclude those lawmakers from weighing in publicly afterwards.
Following Netanyahu’s address on Tuesday, Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat who is part of the tiny Jewish population in his district and doesn’t plan to attend the speech, will headline a news conference to give fellow disgruntled Democrats an opportunity to share their thoughts.
The list of participants was still in flux on Feb. 27, but it could include a mix of members who skipped the event and those who were, albeit reluctantly, present.
The growing list of Democrats skipping the event sparked a mad rush last week to claim unwanted tickets for guests and constituents.
A source in the office of Speaker John A. Boehner told CQ Roll Call the demand for tickets to Netanyahu’s address has reached the highest volume for any joint address since the Ohio Republican took control of the chamber in 2010.
Boehner’s office has been inundated with 10 times the number of requests for tickets than there are seats in the viewing galleries that hover above the House floor. The demand is so high that both the House and Senate have set up overflow rooms on Capitol Hill, which will also require passes for entry, for people to watch the event.
Both sides of the aisle were busy last week preparing for the pageantry of the day’s events. The lawmakers set to escort Netanyahu to the House floor to give his address are Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, along with additional members each of those leaders appoints.
A special reception for Netanyahu following his remarks will include the members of the escort committee, and each leadership office will be allowed to invite two additional guests.
Boehner has invited Elie Wiesel — a Noble Peace Prize winner, Congressional Gold Medal recipient, Holocaust survivor and author — as his guest. As a gift to Netanyahu, Boehner plans to present him a bust of Winston Churchill; the Israeli prime minister and Churchill are the only two heads of state who have addressed joint sessions of Congress three times.
An aide for Boehner told CQ Roll Call to expect a guest appearance by former speaker and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.
The Netanyahu speech is without a doubt the big story in Washington this week, but the House is also expected to tackle a few other things, including:
- Consideration of legislation to reauthorize passenger-rail programs. The Rules Committee will lay out the parameters for floor debate Monday evening, with 15 potential amendments already filed. The measure isn’t expected to cause many fireworks, but as with all bills of this type, there could be some disagreement among conservatives about the role the federal government should play in funding local transportation initiatives.
- At the committee level, the House Judiciary Committee will mark up four immigration bills — but not the kind Democrats will like. The GOP-led panel has lined up consideration for bills Democrats are expected to rebuff as too draconian and, above all else, do not address a pathway to legal status for the nation’s millions of undocumented immigrants.
The bills would, in turn, give states more authority to enforce immigration laws and take away the president’s ability to block immigration enforcement unilaterally; require all employers to use E-Verify to ensure their workers are eligible for employment in the United States; raise the bar for who can claim asylum status in the country; and streamlines the process of returning home immigrant minors who enter the country illegally and without adult supervision.
David Harrison contributed to this report.
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