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Chuck Schumer and Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson traps Chuck Schumer on Netanyahu

For the first time this Congress, Speaker Mike Johnson has boxed in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. And he did it on a topic that’s near to Schumer’s heart — Israel.

Johnson’s decision to publicly — and quite relentlessly — push for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to travel to Washington to address a joint meeting of Congress has put Schumer in an unusually uncomfortable position inside the Senate Democratic Caucus, where opinions of the Israeli leader have sunk to a new low.

The politics are easy for Johnson. His conference is in lock-step behind Netanyahu. And Johnson is using Israel as a political cudgel against Democrats.

It’s more complicated for Schumer. The New York Democrat has called for Israel to hold new elections to oust Netanyahu, describing him as an obstacle to peace as the bloody war in Gaza drags on.

So Johnson is putting Schumer in an awkward spot here. Still, Schumer has said he’ll join the invitation because the U.S.-Israel relationship “transcends” any one leader.

Yet Schumer is already under pressure from Democrats who say it would be inappropriate to do so while the war continues without an apparent endgame. These Democrats argue it would give Netanyahu a platform to boost his standing back home while playing up disputes with President Joe Biden.

Democrats also view it as a rerun of 2015 when Netanyahu used his congressional address in a failed effort to block the Iran nuclear deal. Rank-and-file Democrats warn Netanyahu is making support for Israel a partisan issue on Capitol Hill, something Schumer has tried to prevent.

“The horse is out of the barn. Israel is just another issue that Republicans are trying to gain an advantage on,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “If he’s going to come here and pick a fight with Democrats, I don’t know that that helps anybody. Netanyahu’s in the business of holding on to political power, not bringing peace.”

This is news: Johnson’s team is eyeing a Netanyahu speech before the August recess, although they are deferring to the prime minister’s team on an exact date. There are only six weeks of legislative session between now and the August recess. One week is the NATO summit in D.C. So time is short.

Johnson and Netanyahu spoke on Wednesday. The conversation was focused on Johnson’s forthcoming legislation to sanction the International Criminal Court over potential arrest warrants for Netanyahu and other Israeli officials. No vote is expected until after the Memorial Day recess.

The two briefly discussed the speech and vowed to continue to try to find a date that works for Netanyahu. If it comes together, it would likely be one of the most divisive addresses to Congress in U.S. history.

The pressure game: Johnson’s staff has put private and public pressure on Schumer to join him in inviting Netanyahu. The speaker’s staff told Schumer’s aides that the Louisiana Republican was setting a Tuesday deadline to commit to signing the invitation.

When the speaker’s office didn’t hear back, Johnson made the deadline public — even though Schumer had said weeks before that he would sign onto an invitation.

Schumer and Johnson spoke briefly about the issue Wednesday during a private meeting of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Inauguration.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said Johnson handled the matter “skillfully” with Schumer.

“He basically just said, ‘I’m going to invite them. And you guys can show up or you don’t have to show up.’ And I think he put them in a box,” McCaul said.

Dems respond: Many Democrats don’t think Schumer should go along with Johnson’s move.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who earlier this week said the ICC would be “right” to seek arrest warrants for Netanyahu, responded with a resounding “No” when we asked if Schumer should join the invitation.

“I may have a conversation with Sen. Schumer just to understand his thinking,” added Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Alex Nguyen, Schumer’s spokesman, offered this comment:

Also: Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is expected to try to pass a two-year extension of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act on the floor today. We’re told Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) will object. Lee has been facing criticism back home for voting against the more comprehensive RECA extension in March.

News: Senate Democrats held a fundraiser Wednesday evening featuring Angela Alsobrooks, the Maryland candidate. The reception was hosted by the DSCC Majority Rising Program.

— Jake Sherman and Andrew Desiderio

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