In a rebuke to President Donald Trump, the Senate has voted 68-23 to advance an amendment that would oppose withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
WASHINGTON – The Republican-led Senate approved legislation Tuesday that sharply criticizes President Donald Trump’s planned withdrawal of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
The bill also includes a controversial provision that would allow local governments to penalize businesses or individuals engaged in anti-Israel boycotts.
Supporters of the boycott provision said it’s needed to protect Israel from “economic warfare” waged against a key American ally. Detractors said it’s a violation of free speech against individuals engaged in a peaceful protest against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
The Senate passed the bill – the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act – on Tuesday afternoon by a vote of 77-to-23, just hours before Trump’s State of the Union speech.
In his remarks Tuesday night, Trump is likely to highlight his planned drawdown of U.S. forces in the Middle East and call for an end to “endless foreign wars,” according a senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s planned remarks.
Trump announced his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria in December, declaring on Twitter that the Islamic State had been defeated. Trump is considering a major reduction of troops in Afghanistan.
Lawmakers in both parties expressed alarm at Trump’s plans, saying that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has not been defeated and that troop withdrawals would allow extremist groups to regroup and re-emerge as a pernicious global threat. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. – who has been reluctant to criticize Trump – sponsored the provision opposing Trump’s withdrawal plan.
McConnell’s measure warns that a “precipitous withdrawal of United States forces” from either Syria or Afghanistan “could put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security.” It’s nonbinding but highlights a growing public rift between hawkish congressional Republicans and Trump.
The Senate adopted McConnell’s resolution as an amendment to the broader Middle East bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The underlying bill would authorize new sanctions against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and extend a security cooperation agreement between the United States and Jordan, among other things.
It’s fate in the House is unclear. Democrats are divided over the Israel boycott provision – which seeks to stymie a movement aimed at pressuring Israel to end its control of the West Bank, allow Palestinians the right to return to Israel, and other issues. The boycott campaign is modeled after the South African anti-apartheid movement.
In response, about two dozen states have passed laws banning government contractors from boycotting Israel. The Senate bill protects such local statutes, giving states the right to penalize those engaged in Israel-related boycotts.
Rubio says the boycotts are a “hateful weapon to delegitimize the Jewish state.” But some liberal Democrats say Rubio’s measure seeks to ban constitutionally protected activity.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat and one of two Muslim women serving in the House, has accused Rubio of trying to “strip Americans of their constitutional right to free speech.”
“This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality,” Tlaib tweeted earlier this year as she and Rubio engaged in a Twitter feud over the measure.
Contributing: John Fritze and David Jackson
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