Senate expected to advance Middle East bill with government reopened

Dems previous blocked measure to pressure Trump

By TED BARRETT, CNN
Win McNamee/Getty Images

(CNN) - The Senate voted overwhelmingly 74 to 19 Monday to advance a Middle East policy bill that includes fresh sanctions on Syria.

Democrats had blocked the measure on three previous attempts because they did not want to take it up until the federal government reopened, which it did Friday after President Donald Trump temporarily dropped his demands for funds to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

The Middle East bill otherwise has bipartisan support, although it includes a provision some Democrats oppose that combats the movement to boycott Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians and other issues.

Debate on the measure will now begin and is likely to rekindle bipartisan concerns on Capitol Hill about Trump's decision to pull US troops out of Syria. A modest number of American troops are there now battling ISIS, but they also act as a check on Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the Russian and Iranian governments that support him.

The Strengthening America's Security in the Middle East Act wraps together five bills into one package. It includes new sanctions against Syria's central bank and individuals providing support for the Syrian government. It boosts military support for Israel and Jordan, two US allies that are Syria's neighbors. And makes it easier for states and localities to approve laws to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the legislation was critical to demonstrate US resolve for America's friends in the Middle East.

"The legislation addresses these challenges actually head on," the Kentucky Republican said. "It tells our ally Israel that our commitment to its security is iron clad. It tells our partners in Jordan that we have their backs as they grapple with the flow of refugees and other ongoing effects of the Syrian crisis and it makes it crystal clear statement to the Syrian regime and those who abet it, your brutality needs to end."

Some Democrats have argued that the BDS part of the law is unconstitutional because it impinges on free speech rights of Americans.

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

McConnell accused Democrats of "shutting down the Senate" when they blocked the Middle East bill.

Republicans also accused Democrats of trying to avoid a vote that divides their caucus over the BDS issue.

This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.

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