Despite unprecedented Democratic backing, including the overwhelming support of the Senate Finance Committee that approved it more than a month ago, Congress’ only legislative volley in the war against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement faces an uncertain future on Capitol Hill.
In advance of a likely vote Wednesday on the so-called Trade Promotion Authority that President Barack Obama says he needs in order to close a deal with 12 Pacific Rim nations — and which contains an amendment authored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) committing the United States to the elimination of state-sponsored boycotts against Israel — Sen. Robert P. Casey (D-Pa.) indicated late last week that, despite supporting the amendment, he will ultimately vote against the bill.
Even Cardin, who approved an earlier iteration of the bill that failed to advance in the House of Representatives when Democrats spurned entreaties by Obama to support the trade package, was noncommittal Monday on how he would vote.
If that leaves members of the pro-Israel community scratching their heads, Casey said that while fighting BDS remains a core priority of his, defeating the trade package is even more important.
“I don’t believe that this TPA legislation, or frankly any bill on TPA, is the only way to combat [BDS] or the most effective way,” he explained.
When the legislation was last taken up by the full Senate — and approved in a 62-37 vote — Casey voted against it. When the House took it up June 12, a must-pass companion bill on Trade Adjustment Assistance that would provide funds for workers displaced by international trade fell victim to Democrats arguing that past comprehensive trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement of the early 1990s, ravaged America’s labor force.
At Obama’s urging, the TPA and TAA provisions were then decoupled and the House approved the trade authority, which would subject any trade deal negotiated by the White House to a simple up or down vote in Congress, last week.
Through a spokeswoman, Cardin said that he bemoaned the fact that he would have to vote on the trade authority without the corresponding worker assistance package, which he supports.
“On TPA, Sen. Cardin prefers that the measure were bundled together,” spokeswoman Sue Walitsky said in an email.
Labor union members and environmentalists were scheduled to rally outside of Cardin’s district office in suburban Maryland.
“It’s time that you listened to your constituents and reject the effort to advance fast-track trade authority in the Senate,” Communications Workers of America member Pam Wilt said in a news release directed at Cardin. “You cannot walk away from working people for a second time.”
When the Finance Committee discharged the trade legislation in a 20-6 vote on April 23, Cardin hailed the legislation for containing the BDS amendment, which passed unanimously. It requires trade negotiators to make rejection of BDS a principal objective in negotiations with the European Union.
“Israel is one of the America’s closest allies and the only stable democracy in the Middle East,” Cardin said at the time. “We may not agree with every Israeli policy, but we cannot allow our potential trading partners in the EU to fall prey to efforts that threaten Israel’s existence.”
In his interview June 19, Casey stood by Cardin’s assessment, calling BDS a movement rooted in anti-Semitism and having as its design the delegitimizing of Israel in the international arena.
“It is really, really disturbing,” he said. “Virtually every American knows about the strength of our relationship with Israel and how it is such a partner with us in the Middle East. So to have an effort that I believe undermines that relationship is disturbing and insulting to what we stand for.”
Although the only BDS legislation with any reasonable chance of passing on Capitol Hill will ultimately fail if Casey gets his way, Pennsylvania’s senior senator said there are other ways he can lead in the fight against BDS.
“As a senator, to prevent it and to mitigate it is, first of all, to use my voice,” he said. “The good news is as an elected official, you have a voice. But you can also use your vote to vote against any policy consistent with BDS or that advances a policy … counterproductive to working towards peace with the Palestinians.”
Associates of Casey’s on both sides of the aisle said that it would be unfair to see in his objection to the trade legislation anything more than a stand against a bill opposed by the labor movement. They didn’t question his commitment to Israel.
“Sen. Casey is probably as pro-Israel as any member of Congress right now,” said Marcel Groen, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, who has traveled to the Jewish state with the senator. “I can guarantee [BDS] is going to come up [again] and in the way he wants it to come up.”
Melissa Apter contributed to this article.