Democrats block Middle East bill in the Senate

Bill unrelated to ongoing government shutdown

By TED BARRETT, CNN

(CNN) - Senate Democrats blocked action on a bill unrelated to the ongoing government shutdown Tuesday, in protest of President Donald Trump's demands to fund a controversial border wall with Mexico in exchange for reopening the agencies.

The move escalated an already tense situation between the parties as Democrats weighed whether to extend their objections to all legislation until the impasse is broken, something that could cripple the chamber and add to the dysfunction in the nation's capital.

The vote -- the first roll call of the new session -- came on a package of bipartisan bills related to US support for Israel and Jordan and new sanctions against the Syrian regime. Needing 60 votes to break a filibuster, the motion was defeated 56-44

Three Democrats from red states voted with Republicans: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Doug Jones of Alabama, and Krysten Sinema of Arizona. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey also broke with his party to vote with Republicans.

The vote occurred a few hours before Trump was set to give a nationally televised address from the Oval Office, when he will advocate for the wall. He also will attend a Senate Republican lunch on Wednesday to put pressure on Democrats to cut a deal and to shore up wavering Republicans who are worried the President doesn't have a successful strategy to end the shutdown.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the third-ranking Democrat in leadership, said she expects her party's protest to extend to other legislation, as Democrats try to pressure Trump to end the shutdown, now in its 18th day.

"The whole thing here is that we cannot be business as usual, with the government shut down, people not getting paychecks and people getting hurt," she said. "That's what this is about."

The Middle East bill was expected to advance before Democrats over the weekend raised the idea of preventing debate and votes on anything other than bills to reopen the government. The idea was quickly embraced Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other members of his caucus.

"Senate Democrats should block consideration of any bills unrelated to opening the government until Sen. Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans allow a vote on the bipartisan bills the House passed to open the government," tweeted Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who represents thousands of furloughed government employees.

Before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged Democrats not to "shut the Senate down," especially over a bill aimed at improving relations with Israel and Jordan, key allies in the Middle East.

"For the sake of the humanitarian crisis on our border," McConnell said. "For the sake of our national security, and for the sake of all the Americans who need all of their federal government re-opened, I urge my Democratic colleagues to get past these harmful political games and get serious about negotiating with the President."

Democrats will discuss whether to expand their protest to other legislation when they meet for the weekly policy lunch Wednesday.

It was not immediately clear what the practical impact would be if Democrats tried to slow-walk action in the chamber that is controlled by Republicans 53-47. One GOP aide said Republicans could still move nominees, which are not subject to a 60-vote threshold to beat a filibuster.

"Twenty-five percent of our government has already been shut down," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the GOP leadership. "I urge our Democratic colleagues in the Senate not to shut down the work of the Senate too."

Some Republicans suggested Democrats wanted to avoid taking up the Middle East policy bill because it includes a provision that makes it easier for states to oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions effort against Israel, an issue that divides Democrats.

In a tweet, Sen. Marco Rubio suggested some Senate Democrats personally support the controversial movement.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she opposed the BDS provision because it is unconstitutional.

"This Israel anti-boycott legislation would give states a free pass to restrict First Amendment protections for millions of Americans. Despite my strong support for Israel, I oppose this legislation because it clearly violates the Constitution," she said.

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