Despite Democrats’ Absence, Netanyahu Speech Is Still a Hot Ticket

UNITED STATES - MARCH 06:  Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, center, appears at a photo op with Congressional leaders in the Rayburn Room.  Netanyahu, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and others, all made remarks. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES – MARCH 06: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, center, appears at a photo op with Congressional leaders in the Rayburn Room. Netanyahu, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and others, all made remarks. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Dozens of House Democrats are planning to skip Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress on March 3, and they’re hoping their absence will send a strong signal.

One of those Democrats is Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky.

Yarmuth, who is Jewish, told CQ Roll Call he was disturbed by the GOP leadership’s decision to invite the foreign leader to speak two weeks before the Israeli elections and in the midst of tense negotiations to disarm Iran, without consulting their Democratic counterparts — or the White House.

“I think, early on, none of us wanted to make a big deal out of it. Just, you know, if we didn’t go, we didn’t go. It wasn’t like we were going to organize a boycott,” Yarmuth said. “But it became clear that attendance would be taken, and you were either gonna be noticed or not by your absence. So I thought I’d get out in front of it.”

Watch a live stream of the speech Tuesday at RollCall.com

Yarmuth’s constituents will be aware of his decision, along with Jewish donors and pro-Israel advocates closely watching how staunch supporters of Israel reconcile their allegiance to the nation with their protest of the politics surrounding the invitation.

In fact, he said he has a meeting with delegates from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee scheduled for the same time as Netanyahu’s address, and Yarmuth said he figured he’d watch the address with those delegates in his Capitol Hill office.

But when the cameras cut away from Netanyahu at the dais and pan across the House floor, they aren’t likely to catch many empty seats, which would have been the starkest symbol of discontent.

It is a longstanding practice for congressional aides — even pages — to sit on the floor alongside lawmakers during any potentially ill-attended joint sessions of Congress to “make it look good for whoever’s speaking,” according to Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., another Jewish representative who said he would not “be a potted plant” for Netanyahu’s address.

“There are more Republican staffers than there are Democrats,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who won’t attend the address next week. “I’m sure they’ll fill the seats.”

There are also the guests of members of Congress who populate the visitors’ galleries that hover above the House floor. Yarmuth recalled traveling to Israel in 2011, shortly after the last Netanyahu address on Capitol Hill, where Israeli men and women he encountered were thoroughly bewildered by the wild applause for their relatively unpopular prime minister.

“I said, ‘Well, all the AIPAC people were all in the gallery,’ Yarmuth chuckled. “That’s the kind of circus that surrounds all this.”

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SOURCE: Roll Call – Emma Dumain

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