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Senate passes Middle East policy bill, urges caution in Syria

21 Democrats vote against measure, including four declared presidential contenders

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s provision against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement directed at Israel proved controversial for many Democrats. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s provision against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement directed at Israel proved controversial for many Democrats. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate on Tuesday passed a Middle East policy bill that urges President Donald Trump not to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan.

The 77-23 vote on the measure came hours ahead of Trump’s State of the Union address and more than a month after the legislation, initially touted as widely bipartisan and noncontroversial, was first brought to the floor. Democrats refused to consider the bill during the 35-day partial government shutdown.

Still, it received considerable attention because of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s amendment pushing the Trump administration not to precipitously withdraw U.S. forces in Syria and Afghanistan but to wait until al-Qaida and the Islamic State have been decisively defeated. The legally nonbinding sense of the Senate amendment was adopted 70-26 Monday night.

The bill now heads to the House where Democratic leaders have signaled they are not interested in taking it up, at least in its present form.

Twenty four Democrats supported the bill, while 21 voted against it, including announced presidential contenders Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats, also voted against the measure.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York last week called the legislation a “political stunt and not a serious effort at protecting American interests.”

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Some of the bill’s provisions are not controversial and would, among other things, reauthorize defense assistance to Jordan and Israel and impose sanctions on foreign individuals who provide significant military or financial assistance to the Syrian government.

But there are elements in the legislation some Democrats consider controversial, such as a provision against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement directed at Israel.

The legislation from Florida Republican Marco Rubio would explicitly empower state and local governments to cut all business ties with individuals and businesses participating in the so-called BDS movement.

In the last Congress, the Republican-controlled House passed the provisions on Syria sanctions and military assistance to Jordan and Israel under suspension of the rules — a floor voting procedure that allows for speedy passage of overwhelmingly popular bills.

A senior House Democratic aide, who was not authorized to be named, said the anti-BDS language — which would fall under the House Financial Services Committee’s jurisdiction because of the way it was written — had no chance of passing the House in its current form. There is a good chance the other provisions would be passed, the staffer said.

Republicans object

McConnell allowed votes on only a limited number of amendments, to the displeasure of some in his own party.

On Monday, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said he was disappointed he was denied a floor vote on his amendment that would have removed the anti-BDS language from the bill. He was the only Republican to vote against the legislation.

And on Tuesday, Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy faulted McConnell for not allowing a vote on his amendment that would have authorized the Trump administration to take steps to ensure allied Syrian Kurds were not “butchered, from being opened up like a soft peanut” by the Turkish military once the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops leave Syria.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle fear that once the U.S. has left Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will order attacks on the Syrian Kurds, who have carved out a sizable autonomous territory for themselves along the Turkish-Syrian border. Syrian Kurds, fighting under the auspices of the Western-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces, have played a pivotal role in battlefield successes against the Islamic State. Turkey considers the Kurds a threat.

“We wouldn’t have beaten back ISIS without the help of the Syrian Kurds,” Kennedy said in a floor speech.

The Louisiana Republican further questioned why some senators were allowed votes on their amendments while others were not. “It seems like we’re kind of, like it’s already Orwellian,” he said. “We’re all equal, but some of us are more equal than others.”

On Monday, McConnell allowed votes on amendments from himself and Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez of New Jersey. The amendment, which was adopted, clarified that the McConnell amendment should not be construed as an authorization for the use of military force.

And on Tuesday, an agreement was reached to adopt by voice vote two technical amendments from Foreign Relations Committee leaders.

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