Congress Circulates Letter Ahead of Netanyahu Speech

January 29, 2015 Updated: January 29, 2015

 When Speaker of the House John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress, he ignited a controversy. Netanyahu is set to visit March 3.

A bill that would levy tough new sanctions on Iran if it fails to sign an agreement to curb its nuclear program cleared a Senate committee on Thursday. But lawmakers are holding off on a full Senate vote to see whether diplomatic negotiations yield a deal.

Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee voted 18-4 to pass the bill aimed at ramping up economic pressure on Iran starting in July if it doesn’t ink an international deal preventing it from having the capability to develop a nuclear weapon.

Republicans still can move ahead, but that’s unlikely without Democratic support. They wouldn’t have enough votes to override President Barack Obama, who says he’ll veto the legislation because it would derail the diplomatic effort to reach a deal.

Meanwhile, Democrats say Boehner overstepped his role by inviting a head of state without going through the White House. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the leader of the House Democrats, said Boehner’s invitation was inappropriate. Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Steve Cohen of Tennessee, and Maxine Waters of California are circulating a letter asking Boehner to postpone Netanyahu’s address to Congress.

To the trio who signed the letter said Boehner’s invitation “undermines the president’s foreign policy; it puts a close ally in the middle of a domestic political debate, and it elevates a candidate in a foreign election.” Israel is having an election on March 17. Netanyahu would be calling for stronger sanctions against Iran, which would raise his profile with Israeli voters in a way the Democrats say is improper and unfair. It might also derail the negotiations meant to make sure it does not develop an atomic bomb. 

“The timing of this invitation and lack of coordination with the White House indicate that this is not an ordinary diplomatic visit,” the letter states. “Rather, this appears to be an attempt to promote new sanctions legislation against Iran that could undermine critical negotiations.”

Some of President Obama’s critics have described him as uncommitted to Israel, even though it is an essential American ally. He has rejected that criticism. The authors of the letter feel Netanyahu’s visit is premature.

“Our relationship with Israel is too important to use as a pawn in political gamesmanship,” wrote the Reps. We strongly urge you to postpone this invitation until Israelis have cast their ballots and our consideration of the current round of Iran-related legislation has concluded.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.