With government shutdown over, US Senate advances Middle East bill

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The US Senate advanced legislation reaffirming support for allies in the Middle East on Monday, including fresh sanctions on Syria and a measure that combats the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians.

Democrats had blocked the package in the Senate during the 35-day partial government shutdown, saying the chamber should first consider legislation to reopen the government.

But after Friday’s agreement to end the shutdown at least until Feb. 15, most of the Senate’s Democrats joined Republicans in favor of taking up the bill.

The measure is still several steps from becoming law, and may never get there. Even if passed by the Senate, it must also be approved by the House of Representatives, where Democrats hold a majority of seats.

The legislation includes provisions to impose new sanctions on Syria and guarantee security assistance to Israel and Jordan. Those are seen as efforts to reassure US allies worried about shifts in US policy since President Donald Trump abruptly announced plans last month for a quick withdrawal of US troops in Syria.

However, the act also includes the BDS provision, which opponents consider an impingement of free speech.

“While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to engage in political activity. It is clear to me that this bill would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and was a “no” vote on Monday.

Some Republicans accused Democrats of supporting the BDS movement, which they see as anti-Semitic. Democrats in turn accused Republicans of trying to use the BDS measure to divide moderate and liberal Democrats.

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