(Corrects voting data: Four Democrats voted to advance Sen. Rubio's bill.)
(CNSNews.com) – In the first Senate vote of the 116th Congress, 44 Democrats on Tuesday stalled movement on a pro-Israel bill which critics argue variously should not proceed amid the government shutdown and/or tramples on the First Amendment by seeking to counter boycotts of Israel.
In a 56-44 vote – falling short of the 60 votes needed to proceed – only four Democrats voted to advance the bill sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). They were Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
(Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell changed his vote from yes to no after the final count, a procedural move that will allow him to bring the bill back to a vote in the future.)
Rubio afterwards accused Senate Democrats of putting “shutdown politics ahead of support for Israel by voting against beginning debate” on the bill, but added, “we will try again later this week.”
“Being obstructionists isn’t going to end the shutdown,” he tweeted.
Rubio’s bill included a measure which when introduced previously drew strong support from senior Senate Democrats. Entitled the Combating BDS Act, the provision would allow state and local governments to divest from any company or fund which for its part boycotts, divests from, or sanctions Israel.
Other parts of the bill – entitled the “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019” – deal with defense cooperation with Jordan, security assistance to Israel, and sanctions against the Assad regime.
Critics have called the BDS (“boycott, divestment and sanctions”) movement an act of “economic warfare” against Israel.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Rubio challenged the argument that the anti-BDS measure would muzzle free speech.
“The law does not outlaw boycott divestment sanctions,” he said on the Senate floor. “If a United States company caves to this pressure and decides it’s going to boycott or divest from Israel, they have the legal right to do so.”
What the measure would do, he said, was give Americans the right to boycott the boycotters.
“Free speech,” he said, “is a two-way street.”
On Twitter earlier, Rubio said the bill’s provision would allow local and state governments to end contracts with companies that give in to the BDS demands.
“Opposition to our bill isn’t about free speech,” he argued. “Companies are FREE to boycott Israel. But local & state governments should be FREE to end contracts with companies that do. Many claim they oppose BDS. But shielding BDS from counter-boycotts is de facto support of BDS.”
On Monday, Rubio charged that the real reason Democratic leaders were opposed to the bill moving forward was a reluctance to have a floor vote reveal that there was emerging support for the BDS movement among Senate Democrats.
“A huge argument broke out at Senate Dem meeting last week over BDS,” Rubio tweeted. “A significant # of Senate Democrats now support BDS & Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that.”
Some Democrats who have supported the substance of the anti-BDS measure opposed advancing Rubio’s bill this week on the grounds that reopening the government should be prioritized right now.
“The Senate should not take up any bills unrelated to reopening the government until [McConnell] lets us vote on exactly that,” tweeted Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), one of 15 Democrats who co-sponsored Rubio’s anti-BDS legislation in 2017.
Opponents of Rubio’s bill include the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which calls itself the nation’s biggest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group.