WASHINGTON -- House Speaker John Boehner's decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress is the latest chapter in the growing division between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans -- and some Democrats -- on foreign policy. Like many presidents, Obama is focusing on foreign policy as his term comes to an end, since he has more autonomy than in the domestic arena where he needs congressional approval to make some policy changes. But with growing opposition to his diplomatic outreach to Iran and Cuba, he could find himself looking at a veto override and the loss of support of his own party.
Inviting Netanyahu was a clear message from Boehner that he isn’t going to stand by quietly as Obama tries to continue diplomatic discussions with Iran. Instead, Boehner -- acting unilaterally -- offered a platform to one of the most vocal critics of Obama's handling of the Mideast. Boehner told reporters on Wednesday that he didn’t consult with the White House before extending the invitation. Traditionally, visits of heads of state would be coordinated with the White House and the State Department.
“I did not consult with the White House,” Boehner said. “The Congress can make this decision on its own. I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye. There is a serious threat that exists in the world and the president last night kind of papered over it. And the fact is, there needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious a threat is from radical Islamic jihadists and the threat posed by Iran.”
The White House said it is "reserving judgement" about Netanyahu's plan to speak to Congress until there is an opportunity to talk to the Israelis.
“The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there," a White House spokesman said. "That certainly is how President Obama’s trips are planned when he travels overseas. This particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”
Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress on Feb. 11. This will be the third time the Israeli prime minister will speak before both chambers, including once in 1996 and a second time in 2011. While not rare, addresses from foreign leaders before Congress aren’t common either. There have been eight such addresses since Obama took office six years ago.
Relations between Obama and Netanyahu are strained. The Obama administration has been critical of Israel's continuing settlement developments in areas of the West Bank that have been identified as territories that could at some point become part of a Palestinian state. In response, Netanyahu has criticized the president for siding with Palestinians and abandoning American values.
Republicans largely agree with the Israeli leader. They say Obama's attempt to deal diplomatically with Tehran is naive, that he's compromising U.S. security and undermining longtime ally Israel.
But the president has been undeterred. Obama made clear he will continue to work toward a diplomatic resolution with Iran and that he will not sign increased sanctions against the nation. “New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again,” Obama said Tuesday night in his State of the Union address. “It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”
But in what could be a real test for the president, a veto of Iran sanctions could risk being overridden by Congress if enough Democrats sign on. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, has argued in favor of more sanctions and been critical of Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Tehran over their nuclear program.
"The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran," Menendez said at a hearing on Wednesday. "And it feeds to the Iranian narrative of victimization, when they are the ones with original sin -- an illicit nuclear weapons program going back over the course of 20 years that they are unwilling to come clean on."
Reaching a deal with Iran that would halt the expansion of their nuclear program would be considered a victory by the president. But even that might not be enough to quell Republican criticism. GOP leaders -- backed, undoubtedly, by Netanyahu -- would likely say that the Iranians cannot be trusted and that the president had been suckered.