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S. 1: Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019

What was the first legislation that Senate Republicans introduced this year?

Context

The very first bill introduced by a majority party in Congress sends an important message about what their legislative priorities are.

In the previous Congress, House Republicans’ first bill was the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which lowered personal income and corporate tax rates, although ballooning the national deficit in the process.

In the current Congress, House Democrats’ first bill is a multipronged anti-corruption vehicle which would institute public financing campaigns, overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision which removed limits on corporate donations, and require presidential candidates to publicly release their tax returns.

So, what is current Senate Republicans’ first bill?

What the bill does

The Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act would institute several measures related to that region, including:

  • Reauthorize a cooperation agreement the U.S. struck with Jordan in 2015: a three-year deal to streamline defense sales, secure the country’s borders with Iraq and Syria, and fight ISIS.
  • Authorizing sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria unless several conditions are met — conditions which are unlikely to be met, such as releasing political prisoners and no longer targeting civilian populations.
  • Extend an existing loan guarantee program with Israel through 2023, while increasing protections for state and local governments that refuse to invest in or contract with companies which boycott Israel.

At least 26 states have passed laws banning their contractors from boycotting Israel. This includes blue states like California and New York, red states like Texas and Alabama, and all six swing states that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

The bill, numbered S. 1, was introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that the U.S. needs to take several bold actions to further help our friends and punish our enemies in one of the planet’s most volatile geopolitical regions.

“It is in America’s national security interests to ensure that our allies in the Middle East like Israel and Jordan remain secure amid the region’s growing destabilizing threats posed by Iran and Syria’s Assad regime,” Sen. Rubio said in a press release. “This important bill will also impose new sanctions against the Assad regime and its supporters who continue to commit horrific human rights violations against the Syrian people.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that the bill’s provisions helping protect state and local governments that punish Israel boycotters is a freedom of speech violation.

“In the midst of a partial government shutdown, Democratic and Republican senators have decided that one of their first orders of business next week should be to sneak through a bill that would weaken Americans’ First Amendment protections,” ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kathleen Ruane told The Intercept.

“The bill… encourages states to adopt the very same anti-boycott laws that two federal courts blocked on First Amendment grounds. The legislation, like the unconstitutional state anti-boycott laws it condones, sends a message to Americans that they will be penalized if they dare to disagree with their government.”

Odds of passage

The bill received more approval than disapproval votes in its first vote, 56–44, but that wasn’t enough to surpass the 60-vote threshold needed to advance.

However, it’s possible the bill could pass the Senate in a future vote. Some Democrats — even ones who may have otherwise supported the legislation — didn’t back it right now by arguing that no other legislation should move until the partial government shutdown is ended.
 Unlike House Republicans’ tax cut reform of 2017 or House Democrats’ public financing of 2019, which were clearly meant as party priorities that few if any members across the aisle would support, this bill actually has some level of bipartisan support.

A somewhat similar bill introduced by Rubio last Congress attracted 48 Senate cosponsors: 33 Republicans and 15 Democrats. However, it never received a vote.

The current version so far only has three cosponsors, all Republicans. (Although it’s only been a few days — 30 of the 48 cosponsors for the previous version signed on after its introduction day.)

Last updated Jan 11, 2019. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Feb 5, 2019.


Strengthening America's Security in the Middle East Act of 2019

This bill authorizes assistance and weapons transfers to Israel, extends defense cooperation with Jordan, establishes additional sanctions related to the conflict in Syria, and allows states to divest from entities boycotting Israel.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act of 2019

The bill reauthorizes through FY2028 Foreign Military Financing to Israel. It extends loan guarantees to Israel through FY2023 and authorizes the President to transfer precision-guided munitions to the country.

The bill directs the President to report on steps taken to help Israel secure a strategic trade authorization exception.

The bill directs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to continue working with the Israel Space Agency to pursue peaceful space exploration, and authorizes the Department of State to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Israel to coordinate assistance efforts for developing nations.

The President is authorized to enter into a cooperative project agreement with Israel to develop technology to counter unmanned aerial vehicles.

United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Extension Act

The bill extends through 2022 arrangements that allow certain defense articles to be transferred to Jordan on an expedited basis. The bill also directs the President to submit a report to Congress assessing the costs and benefits of establishing a fund to support private investment in Jordan.

Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019

The bill directs the Department of the Treasury to determine whether the Central Bank of Syria is a primary money-laundering concern and, if so, impose special measures on transactions involving the bank. The bill also imposes sanctions on foreign individuals providing support for the Syrian government, or the military forces or contractors acting on behalf of Syria, Russia, or Iran.

The sanctions include blocking of financial and property transactions and barring of entry into the United States. Such sanctions shall not apply to various nongovernmental organizations and activities related to providing humanitarian aid or supporting democratic institutions in Syria.

The President may suspend the sanctions under certain conditions, including if it is in the United States' national security interests. Combating BDS Act of 2019

The bill allows a state or local government to adopt measures to divest its assets from entities using boycotts, divestments, or sanctions to influence Israel's policies. Such measures shall meet various requirements, including those related to written notice and comment. It also bars lawsuits against investment companies based solely on a company's decision to divest from entities that use boycotts, divestments, or sanctions to influence Israel's policies.

The bill expresses the sense of the Senate that, before any significant withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria or Afghanistan, the President should certify that the conditions for the enduring defeat of al Qaeda and ISIS have been met.