WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate's most senior lawmaker said Tuesday he will skip the Israeli prime minister's speech to Congress next month on Iran, calling the invitation by Republicans without White House consultation a "tawdry and high-handed stunt."
Seven-term Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont joined a half dozen Democrats who have decided to boycott Benjamin Netanyahu's speech, which comes in middle of delicate negotiations involving the United States, Western powers and Iran over its nuclear program. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, invited Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress on March 3.
"The unfortunate way that House leaders have unilaterally arranged this, and then heavily politicized it, has demolished the potential constructive value of this joint meeting," Leahy said in a statement. "They have orchestrated a tawdry and high-handed stunt that has embarrassed not only Israel but the Congress itself."
Democrats have complained that the speech is an affront to President Barack Obama, who has said he will not meet with Netanyahu when he visits the United States. Obama said Monday that he has "very real differences" with the Israeli leader over Iran and sanctions.
Vice President Joe Biden also will miss the speech, citing unspecified travel plans.
Boehner has defended the invitation.
One of the newest members of the Senate, Democrat Brian Schatz of Hawaii, said Tuesday he would not attend the speech, criticizing an invitation "with the apparent purpose of undermining President Obama's foreign policy prerogatives" and arguing that it does "more harm than good" to the bipartisan U.S.-Israeli alliance.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democratic leader, said he would attend Netanyahu's speech, even though he says Boehner should have consulted with the White House and Democrats before inviting the Israeli prime minister to address lawmakers.
"It seems unseemly to have created this political issue," Hoyer told reporters.
Hoyer said he spoke to Netanyahu two weeks ago after he was invited to speak.
"I told him of the political consternation that this had caused within our caucus, and that it was unfortunate," he said.
Netanyahu is a sharp critic of administration negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, and Democrats fear he'll use the opportunity to embarrass Obama and further his own re-election prospects. The speech comes two weeks before elections in Israel.
In Israel, Netanyahu has insisted he will address Congress despite calls in the United State and in Israel for him to cancel the speech.
"I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the president, but because I must fulfill my obligation to speak up on a matter that affects the very survival of my country," the prime minister said Tuesday, adding that he wants to speak in Congress because of its "important role" on a nuclear deal with Iran.
A half dozen Jewish House Democrats, angered by the developments, met privately last week with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and pressed for Netanyahu to find an alternative format for speaking to lawmakers other than a speech to a joint meeting in the House chamber.
Leahy joins Vermont's other senator, Independent Bernie Sanders, who said on Monday he would skip the speech.
The Senate has postponed — for now — a vote on a new round of sanctions against Iran ahead of the March 24 deadline for the U.S. and its international partners to reach a framework agreement with Iran that could provide an outline for a more comprehensive deal to be finalized by late June.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he was willing to delay a vote until late March "if that's what it takes to get the votes" although he was ready to act now.
"I think the outcome of the negotiations is clear to anyone who has watched the way Iran has used negotiations in the past. They've used it the way the North Korea has used it, to buy time and space," Rubio told reporters after a classified briefing on Iran for members of the Senate.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.