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For Second Time During Shutdown, Four Democrats Vote With GOP to Punish Boycotts of Israel

"The recent spate of bills that seek to penalize Israel boycotts is a bipartisan problem."

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Despite being given a rare opportunity to change their widely denounced vote from earlier this week, four Senate Democrats once again sided with the GOP on Thursday in support of a motion to end debate on "unconstitutional" legislation that would punish those who choose to defend Palestinian rights by backing the international campaign to boycott Israel.

Much to the relief of civil libertarians and Palestinian rights groups, the motion ultimately failed to reach the 60 votes needed to pass, as every other member of the Democratic caucus teamed up to block Senate Bill 1 (S.1)—a slate of four measures that includes the so-called "Combating BDS Act" and legislation to authorize $38 billion in military aid to Israel.

"We hope that as Senator McConnell has called for this to go to to third vote, Kyrsten Sinema—as well as Menendez, Jones, and Manchin—will come to their senses"
—Ariel Gold, CodePink

The four Senate Democrats who voted with Republicans for the second time this week were: Bob Menendez (N.J.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Doug Jones (Ala.), and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). These Democrats could get yet another chance to flip their vote as early as next week, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) immediately filed cloture again following the second failed procedural vote.

"Of the four Democrats, Sinema's vote was the most disappointing," Ariel Gold, national co-director of CodePink, told Common Dreams. "In fact, her vote was shocking. In 2003, Sinema joined CodePink protests against the Iraq War. Why she now would be voting in favor of a war on the First Amendment and prioritizing military aid to Israel over the need for federal workers to be paid is baffling."

"We hope that as Senator McConnell has called for this to go to to third vote, Kyrsten Sinema—as well as Menendez, Jones, and Manchin—will come to their senses," Gold added.

While advocacy groups were quick to applaud Democratic senators for standing together to stop McConnell from moving ahead with legislation that is completely unrelated to ending the government shutdown, critics noted that bipartisan support for anti-boycott efforts raises serious concerns that enough Democrats could flip and vote to pass the bill after the prolonged shutdown ends.

Sen. Menendez, a longtime supporter of anti-boycott measures, indicated that this is a possibility the first failed procedural vote earlier this week. The legislation, he predicted in an interview with Al Jazeera, "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," the New Jersey senator added.

As the ACLU's Kate Ruane and Abdullah Hasan pointed out in a blog post on Wednesday, "The recent spate of bills that seek to penalize Israel boycotts is a bipartisan problem."

"Many Senate Democrats blocked the Combating BDS Act this week, rightly arguing that Congress should end the government shutdown rather than making this the first order of business of the new session," Ruane and Hasan continued. "But four Senate Democrats voted to pass the bill, and many others, including Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), have expressed support for other anti-boycott efforts, even when they have come at the expense of our constitutional rights."

As The Intercept reported this past weekend, Schumer was initially planning to back S.1—sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)—and "supported Cardin's far more draconian bill of last year."

But Schumer shifted his position on Monday, opting to stand with Senate Democrats who vowed to vote down any legislation unrelated to ending the government shutdown, which is now in its twentieth day and close to becoming the longest in U.S. history.

"It's absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

According to the Washington Post's Jeff Stein, Schumer's reason for promising to block the legislation was "because the government shutdown remains unresolved"—not because of any opposition to the bill's contents.

If passed, S.1 would hand states and localities greater legal authority to punish companies and individuals who participate in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Two federal courts have already struck down similar bills as unconstitutional.

In a tweet on Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) condemned both S.1 itself and the fact that McConnell is attempting to plow ahead with business as usual while the government shutdown continues and hundreds of thousands of federal employees remain furloughed or forced to work without pay.

"It's absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity," Sanders wrote. "Democrats must block consideration of any bills that don't reopen the government. Let's get our priorities right."

In an interview on Democracy Now! on Tuesday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—who became the second member of Congress to back the BDS movement last month after Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—expressed agreement with Sanders, calling S.1 an "anti-speech, anti-First Amendment bill."

"I cannot imagine our country not having the right to economic boycott," Tlaib added. "I just wish the United States senators, that are in power, that are in leadership right now, would not be so focused on taking away our rights, and be focused on helping the thousands of families, millions... that are impacted by this government shutdown."

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