With less than four days until a temporary funding measure runs out, forcing the Department of Homeland Security to furlough 30,000 non-essential employees and requiring hundreds of thousands more come to work with no guarantee of when they will be paid, Capitol Hill will come to a standstill this morning.
It won’t be so that lawmakers can focus on funding the agency that secures U.S. borders and plays a key role in protecting the country from terrorism. And it won’t be to reform the tax code or fixing the broken immigration system.
The legislature will assemble to hear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voice his opinion about ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program before a joint session of Congress.
The defining narrative from Netanyahu and his overwhelmingly Republican hosts is that he has a vital message to deliver to Congress. Netanyahu will say the same thing he has been shouting from the rooftops for months — that he doesn’t trust Iran, and is against virtually any deal that the Obama administration and its allies might strike with the Islamic Republic to dial back its nuclear ambitions.
Netanyahu may be right about the deal being negotiated in Switzerland right now. He may be wrong. What is certain, though, is that the political impact of his appearance before Congress this morning has mushroomed to a size vastly out of proportion to the importance of the actual words likely to come out of his mouth and is distracting U.S. lawmakers from issues far closer to home.
True, Netanyahu might drop some bombshell this morning, revealing new evidence of Tehran’s perfidy. But this speech has been scheduled since January, so it would be an odd decision for the Israeli Prime Minister, who has cast the results of the negotiations as having existential consequences for his country, not to have shared such information earlier.
Make no mistake; Netanyahu has been sharing everything else. He has appeared on countless U.S. television talk shows and done an untold number of media interviews slamming the possibility of any result other than one that meets Israel’s demand that Iran’s nuclear program be completely dismantled.
Whether or not Netanyahu is right, it’s clear that his speech is having a negative impact -- both on relations between the two main U.S. political parties, and on the ability of Congress to focus on other urgent issues.
Netanyahu was invited to speak to the joint session of Congress by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who consulted with Israeli Ambassador and former GOP operative Ron Dermer. The invitation was issued without consulting the White House, which by all accounts, was a breach of diplomatic protocol. President Obama has refused to meet with Netanyahu during his time in the U.S., citing a longstanding practice of avoiding meetings with foreign leaders, particularly allies, in advance of their domestic elections. (Netanyahu faces a parliamentary election in two weeks.)
“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds,” Netanyahu told the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual meeting in Washington on Monday. “I have great respect for both.”
By most accounts, Netanyahu’s effort to paint the move as without political motives was too little, too late. More than 50 Democratic members of Congress have said that they will not attend Netanyahu’s speech, and Netanyahu has come under considerable criticism both at home and in the U.S. for appearing to side with one U.S. political party over another.
For their part, Republicans have gone to some lengths to make sure that everyone knows the House Chamber will be full when the Israeli Prime Minister arrives. “We’ve had 10 times the number of requests for tickets than there are seats available in the gallery,” Boehner’s office told the media in a press release Monday. As a memento of his appearance before the United States Congress today, Boehner will present Netanyahu with a bust of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Netanyahu will leave Washington having done nothing in particular to advance his cause among U.S. lawmakers already quite familiar with his position.
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