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Senate Democrats Block Syria Sanctions Over Shutdown

Daniel Flatley
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Senate Democrats Block Syria Sanctions Over Shutdown

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Democrats blocked new sanctions on Syria, saying they won’t vote to consider the penalties until the GOP-led chamber takes up legislation to open closed government agencies.

The sanctions measure failed Tuesday evening in a procedural vote, 56 to 44, with 60 votes needed to advance, just hours before President Donald Trump is set to deliver a prime time address on the partial government shutdown.

Top Democrats said they’ll refuse to support legislation not related to reopening the government and the vote on the security-related measure was a demonstration of the party’s unity on the issue. The shutdown began Dec. 22 in a largely partisan dispute over funding a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border that was a centerpiece of Trump’s presidential campaign.

The sanctions are part of a package of security-related bills, introduced by Florida Republican Marco Rubio and supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The measure directs the Trump administration to impose sanctions on entities doing business with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, such as selling petroleum products or aircraft parts.

The legislation follows the president’s surprise announcement last month that he would withdraw U.S. forces from the conflict in the country. The measure also included aid for Israel and a provision that would let state and local governments refuse to do business with anyone who boycotts Israel.

The movement among Democrats to oppose any bills that didn’t end the shutdown began over the weekend after Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen said in a tweet that Senate Democrats should block consideration of any other legislation until McConnell of Kentucky allowed a vote on the bills passed by the House to open the government.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told fellow Democrats he would vote to block debate on the measure until McConnell agrees to take up House-passed bills to reopen the closed government departments.

Several of his colleagues followed suit, including the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and the No. 3 Democrat, Patty Murray of Washington. Republicans control the chamber 53-47, meaning they need Democratic support to reach the 60-vote threshold needed for most legislation to pass.

McConnell voiced his frustration with the tactic on the Senate floor, saying "America’s vital interests in the Middle East have been challenged by chaos" and that the package of legislation would allow the Congress to address "all of this head on."

"I expected these actions to be a big bipartisan vote, not a partisan showdown," he said.

Withdrawing Troops

A number of lawmakers, including prominent Senate Republicans, opposed Trump’s December declaration of victory over the Islamic State in Syria and decision to withdraw U.S. troops. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned shortly after the announcement.

U.S. officials have since added caveats and conditions to Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw U.S. troops from the conflict. National Security Adviser John Bolton said Sunday that American forces would remain in Syria until Islamic State is defeated.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declined a meeting with Bolton Tuesday, citing the administration’s changing message on Syria and told members of parliament that "Trump’s remarks continue to be the main point of reference for us.”

Trump is set to speak about the shutdown impasse during an Oval Office address scheduled for 9 p.m. Washington time. Although conservative allies of the president are urging him to declare a national emergency to build his proposed border wall with military funding, he isn’t expected to do that in his remarks.

Some congressional Republicans have voiced their opposition both to the use of an emergency declaration and to the use of military funding to build a wall on the southern border. Senator John Cornyn of Texas said the declaration "should be an extraordinary exception" and Representative Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said using military funds for the wall "will be damaging."

In the House, Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is pushing the Syria provisions as a separate bill. A Democratic committee aide said Engel expects to see House action on the bill soon.

--With assistance from Laura Litvan and Erik Wasson.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Flatley in Washington at dflatley1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Justin Blum

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