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Democrats Facing Choice Between Obama, Netanyahu (Updated)

Hoyer said he'll attend the Netanyahu address. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 3:07 p.m. | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's scheduled address to a joint session of Congress on March 3 is starting to look like a watershed moment for Democrats who find themselves facing a choice: Side with Netanyahu, or follow the lead of President Barack Obama.  

It's an open question whether Democrats will honor a decades-long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel and its leaders, or go with the White House, which has criticized the address as a breach of protocol and a threat to ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. Obama has said he has no plans to meet with Netanyahu during the Washington visit, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced he would be out of the country during the address — though exactly where he'll be traveling remains unknown. Dozens of Democrats could follow Biden's lead, with many still steaming over Speaker John A. Boehner's January invitation to the Israeli leader.  

The White House and other congressional Democrats, most notably Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, have complained the invitation was made without consulting the president. And Democrats have derided the Boehner invite as an overtly political move — one that has driven a wedge between Republicans and Democrats on the staunchly bipartisan issue of supporting Israel.  

On Tuesday, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., added his name to the list of Democrats planning to skip the address, calling it a "tawdry and high-handed stunt" orchestrated by House GOP leaders. A day earlier, Leahy's fellow Vermonter, independent Sen. Bernard Sanders, said he would not attend.  

The Israel lobby is detecting the damage this address is already causing and trying to control it. On Tuesday, J Street, an Israeli advocacy group based in Washington, sent a letter to every member of Congress asking them to pressure Boehner into delaying the Netanyahu speech until after the March 17 elections.  

If members decide the speech is inappropriate, they won't exactly be making an enemy with the powerful Israel lobby. Nor would they be issuing the harshest rebuke of Obama if they ultimately show up.  

Most Democrats are expected to attend. And the White House hasn't been calling for a boycott. Even Pelosi told reporters last week that, "as of now," she plans to be there.  

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer suggested the decision to attend or skip was up to individual members. A letter from Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Financial Services Committee ranking member Maxine Waters, D-Calif.; and Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; asking Boehner to postpone the speech now has close to 20 Democrats signed on, according to an aide familiar with the effort.  

But Hoyer made it clear Tuesday he would attend the address, even though he called the speech fiasco "unseemly," "unfortunate" and "politicized."  

"A controversy has been created that didn't need to be," he said.  

Asked if he was happy with how the Obama administration had handled the Netanyahu speech, Hoyer said he was "not unhappy."  

Double negatives aside, neither Obama nor Netanyahu — nor Boehner or other House Republicans, for that matter — show any signs of backing down.  

The president jabbed the Israeli prime minister Monday for his decision to come to Washington just two weeks before Israeli elections, and Obama warned against using Israel for political gain.  

"The U.S.-Israeli relationship is not about a particular party," Obama said during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  

"As much as I love Angela, if she was two weeks away from an election, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House — and I suspect she wouldn't have asked for one," Obama said.  

The president continued to say that Netanyahu's visit, in the midst of international negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, jeopardizes a potential deal.  

"It does not make sense to sour the negotiations a month or two before they are about to be complete," Obama said. "What's the rush? Unless your view is it's not possible to get a deal with Iran. … That I cannot agree with," he said.  

But Netanyahu, calling the proposed nuclear deal with Iran an "existential issue" for Israel, reiterated on Twitter Tuesday that he intends to go through with the speech.

And House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy indicated Tuesday morning Republicans are firmly behind the Israeli prime minister, saying that, "just as anywhere else," there is a "separation" between the House and the administration on this issue.  

"I think it's a need with what's happening in the world today," McCarthy said. "I think it's important that people speak to us."  

Still, there were signs that parties in Israel and in the U.S. were trying to tamp down the furor surrounding the address. Reuters, citing unnamed sources in the Israeli government, reported Monday that officials are considering making the address a closed-door speech to Congress rather than a televised speech in prime time.  

David Eldridge and Emma Dumain contributed to this report.    

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