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  • The United States government has been shut down since late December.

    The United States government has been shut down since late December. | Photo: Reuters

Published 10 January 2019
Opinion

Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said on Twitter that the bill would infringe on civil rights.

The United States Senate has struck down a bill aimed at blocking any boycott of Israel spearheaded by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement Tuesday, a bill which lawmakers and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have heavily criticized.

RELATED: 
Bernie Sanders Slams 'Absurd' Anti-BDS Bill Amid Gov’t Shutdown

Legislation reaffirming U.S. support for allies in the Middle East, including a measure to punish Americans who boycott Israel, fell victim Tuesday to a domestic political dispute resulting in a partial federal government shutdown.

Amid an ongoing government shutdown that so far has lasted weeks, the U.S. Senate voted 56 to 44 against the "Strengthening America's Security in the Middle East Act" introduced by Marco Rubio of Florida and James Risch of Idaho, falling short of the 60 votes needed to advance the measure to the House of Representatives.

Most Senate Democrats have vowed to block all legislation they are presented with until the body votes on a measure to end the shutdown, criticizing President Donald Trump's fellow Republicans for backing his demand for US$5.7 billion to build a barrier on the border with Mexico as a condition to reopen the government.

"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," former presidential candidate and current Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont wrote on Twitter Monday. "Democrats must block consideration of any bills that don’t reopen the government. Let's get our priorities right."

Though the act has been shut down, Rubio said there would be another push. "Today Senate Democrats decided to put shutdown politics ahead of support for #Israel by voting against beginning debate on our Senate Bill 1. But we will try again later this week. Being obstructionists isn’t going to end the shutdown," he said.

Although Republicans increased their Senate majority from 47 to 53 seats in November's midterm elections, the act still required at least seven Democratic "yes" votes to move ahead.

The Middle East legislation included provisions supported by both Republicans and Democrats to impose new sanctions on Syria and guarantee security assistance to Israel and Jordan. These measures are seen as an effort by the U.S. government to reassure allies who are worried about shifts in U.S. policy since Trump abruptly announced plans last month for a quick withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops deployed in Syria.

However, the act also included a provision that would let state and local governments punish United States citizens for boycotting Israel, which opponents, including many Democrats, see as infringing  on free speech.

“SB1 allows local & state govt’s to boycott the boycotters by ending contracts with companies that give in to these Anti-Israel demands,” Rubio said on Twitter.

The ACLU said that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which grants U.S. citizens the right to free speech, belongs to the people, not the government.

"States don't have the 'right' to punish individuals for participating in political boycotts the government doesn't agree with, which this bill encourages them to do," the legal aid group said.

Some Republicans accused Democrats of supporting the BDS movement targeting Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, which they see as anti-Semitic. Democrats in turn accused Republicans of trying to use the BDS measure to divide moderate and liberal Democrats.

Even if it had passed the Senate, the act would have faced a doubtful future in the House of Representatives, where Democrats now hold a 235- to 199-seat majority, with one seat vacant, after sweeping victories in November.

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