WASHINGTON (JTA) — They voted for it before they voted against it.
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives were in the odd position Wednesday of voting against a bill that included an initiative to combat anti-Semitism, a measure they initially insisted was in the national security interests of the United States.
The bill itself would end U.S. assistance for Saudi Arabia in the war it is pursuing in Yemen. But the measure also included a motion, pushed by Republicans, saying it was in the national security interest to oppose boycotts of “countries friendly to the United States” — i.e., Israel.
The motion, put forth by Rep. David Kustoff, R-Tenn., was seen by many as a pill that would be especially hard for Democrats to swallow. Senate Democrats had just taken heat, after all, when many in the party voted against an Israel assistance bill because it included anti-boycott legislation that would penalize entities that call for a boycott of Israel. Dissenting Democrats said that such laws impinge on free speech; Republicans said the Democratic opponents were appeasing the anti-Israel crowd.
And motions like these, known as a “motion to recommit,” are usually the minority’s last-bid attempt to embarrass the majority by forcing it to oppose mom-and-apple-pie sentiments.
“It is in the national security interest of the United States to combat anti-Semitism around the world,” Kustoff, a former prosecutor thundered, quoting the motion. His GOP colleagues applauded and cheered. “I ask all members to stand in solidarity with Jews around the world and support the motion to recommit.”
If Kustoff had intended to bait the Democrats into opposing the anti-boycott motion, it didn’t work. After he resumed his seat, the acting speaker, Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., asked for speakers in opposition.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., rose and said, “I do not oppose.” There were surprised murmurs. “I accept this resolution and I agree with everything Mr. Kustoff just said,” Engel said.
Engel, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, had just given the green light to his Democratic colleagues to vote for what the caucus might under different circumstances have believed was a poison pill.
The motion passed unanimously, 424-0. Hill watchers watched in wonder.
“These procedural votes rarely succeed,” Manu Raju, CNN’s senior congressional correspondent, said on Twitter.
The next vote was on the Yemen bill, which Republicans oppose as overly restrictive of the president’s foreign policy prerogative. It passed, too, but almost along clean party lines: 230 Democrats and 18 Republicans in favor, 177 Republicans against.
Someone at the House Foreign Affairs Committee couldn’t resist a little tit for tat.
“Why did so many @HouseGOP members just vote against their own legislation condemning anti-Semitism?” the committee’s Twitter feed said, with a screenshot of the Yemen vote from C-Span and the text of Kustoff’s motion.
A spokesman for Kustoff suggested that the congressman still considered it a win, noting that it was the first motion to recommit to pass since 2010.
“The motion passed unanimously,” Kustoff’s spokesman said. “Which is a huge deal.”
A spokeswoman for Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said the overall bill was “fundamentally flawed” because it was an improper use of Congress’ power to restrict the president’s power to make defense policy.
Nevertheless, Erin Perrine told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Republicans seized the opportunity to “unequivocally” affirm “the commitment of the United States to combat growing anti-Semitism at home and abroad, and the national security interest we have in confronting hateful challenges to the legitimacy of the democratic state of Israel.”