A group of Democrats in the House of Representatives are circulating a petition asking Republican Speaker John Boehner to postpone the March 3 speech by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to a joint meeting of Congress, Bloomberg reported on Monday.
“As members of Congress who support Israel, we share concern that it appears that you are using a foreign leader as a political tool against the president,” states the letter, which is being circulated among lawmakers by Representatives Keith Ellison, Steve Cohen and Maxine Waters.
The three started sending the petition to fellow lawmakers last week, said Mike Casca, a spokesman for Ellison of Minnesota.
The names of all lawmakers signing it won’t be released until later this week, he told Bloomberg.
While the petition asks Boehner to delay the speech, it stops short of declaring that members signing won’t attend.
Netanyahu’s speech has become a point of contention not just between Israelis and Americans, but also between Republicans and Democrats.
House of Representatives Speaker Republican John Boehner invited Netanyahu to make the speech without the knowledge of either the White House's or Democratic leaders in Congress.
Obama's allies fear the trip could be used by Israel and by Republicans, who control Congress and issued the invitation, to undercut ongoing nuclear talks with Iran.
Boehner defended the action, saying Congress has every right, as a separate branch of government, to operate without the administration's input.
The lawmakers’ petition, according to Bloomberg, asks Boehner to postpone the invitation until after Israel’s March 17 elections and the deadline for diplomatic negotiations with Iran. March 24 is the deadline for the framework of an agreement.
The petition said Boehner’s invitation “appears to be an attempt to promote new sanctions legislation against Iran that could undermine” efforts to reach a nuclear deal with that country. Obama has said the negotiations are the best chance to keep the enemy of Israel from acquiring nuclear weapons.
“At the State of the Union, President Obama made it clear that he will veto new Iran sanctions legislation,” said the petition. “Aside from being improper, this places Israel, a close and valued ally, in the middle of a policy debate between Congress and the White House.”
The White House has made clear that neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry would meet Netanyahu while he is in Washington, explaining that American policy is not to meet foreign leaders on dates that are close to national elections in their countries.
Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has announced that he will be travelling abroad during the joint session of Congress and will not be present when Netanyahu gives his speech.
Obama defended his snub of Netanyahu on Monday, telling reporters, “We have a practice of not meeting with leaders right before their elections”. He added that he and Netanyahu “have a real difference” about sanctions against Iran.
Meanwhile, some Democrats have been considering not attending the speech, though House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said last week that there will be no “organized” boycott of Netanyahu’s speech among Democrats. She suggested, however, some lawmakers might “just be too busy” to attend.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in a speech Monday at the Brookings Institution he would not attend the Netanyahu event and “may watch it on TV”, thus becoming the first senator to publicly declare he would not attend.
Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, said Monday that Netanyahu's speech is still scheduled for March 3 and that Boehner isn’t considering a postponement.