January 23, 2015 / 9:34 PM / in 3 years

Invitation to Netanyahu to address U.S. Congress: When bipartisan means partisan

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem January 18, 2015. REUTERS/Abir Sultan/Pool

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, jolted Washington this week by inviting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress, his office said it had been done “on behalf of the bipartisan leadership.”

In reality, it was among the most partisan moves so far by America’s newly Republican-controlled Congress. Fuming Democratic leaders in Congress have said they were not consulted, raising questions over whether Boehner had accurately characterized the nature of his invitation.

The invitation was worded that way, a Boehner spokesman said on Friday, because “Boehner is the Speaker of the whole House, elected by the whole House.” Boehner was re-elected as the chamber’s leader on Jan. 6 with 216 votes, all from Republicans, out of the 435 voting members of the House of Representatives.

Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, his counterpart in the House, said they had not been told in advance of Boehner’s plan to invite Netanyahu. The White House also said that President Barack Obama, a Democrat, had not been told ahead of time.

“The Speaker of the House has awesome power. I know that. I’ve been there,” Pelosi told her weekly news conference on Thursday. “The fact, though, is that power is not to be squandered.”

In announcing the invitation on Wednesday, Boehner called Netanyahu “a great friend of our country.”

“In this time of challenge, I am asking the Prime Minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life,” he said.

Democratic congressional staffers called Boehner’s action a blatant political ploy.

Netanyahu is expected to back Republican moves to pressure Obama to take a tougher line in talks on a nuclear deal with Iran.

The prime minister is due to address Congress two weeks before Israel’s general election on March 17 in which he is vying for a fourth term.

The flap added to a growing perception that Netanyahu’s government has become a partisan Republican player in U.S. politics, despite historically close ties to lawmakers in both parties.

Republicans were unapologetic.

Arizona Republican John McCain said the party was giving Obama a taste of his own medicine. In a hallway interview at the Capitol, he termed the invitation “a great idea” after Obama’s announcement that he would push ahead on policy without waiting to compromise with Congress.

“He basically said, ‘I‘m going to do my thing, you do your thing.’ We got it, we got the message,” McCain said.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Toni Reinhold

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