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Some Democrats May Skip It, but Netanyahu Speech Is Still a Hot Ticket

Dozens of House Democrats are planning to skip Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress on March 3, and they're hoping their absence will send a strong signal. One of those Democrats is Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky. Yarmuth, who is Jewish, told CQ Roll Call he was disturbed by the GOP leadership's decision to invite the foreign leader to speak two weeks before the Israeli elections and in the midst of tense negotiations to disarm Iran, without consulting their Democratic counterparts — or the White House. "I think, early on, none of us wanted to make a big deal out of it. Just, you know, if we didn't go, we didn't go. It wasn't like we were going to organize a boycott," Yarmuth said."But it became clear that attendance would be taken, and you were either gonna be noticed or not by your absence. So I thought I'd get out in front of it." Watch a live stream of the speech Tuesday at RollCall.com Yarmuth's constituents will be aware of his decision, along with Jewish donors and pro-Israel advocates closely watching how staunch supporters of Israel reconcile their allegiance to the nation with their protest of the politics surrounding the invitation. Netanyahu (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo) In fact, he said he has a meeting with delegates from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee scheduled for the same time as Netanyahu's address, and Yarmuth said he figured he'd watch the address with those delegates in his Capitol Hill office. But when the cameras cut away from Netanyahu at the dais and pan across the House floor, they aren't likely to catch many empty seats, which would have been the starkest symbol of discontent. It is a longstanding practice for congressional aides — even pages — to sit on the floor alongside lawmakers during any potentially ill-attended joint sessions of Congress to "make it look good for whoever's speaking," according to Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., another Jewish representative who said he would not "be a potted plant" for Netanyahu's address. "There are more Republican staffers than there are Democrats," said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who won't attend the address next week. "I'm sure they'll fill the seats." There are also the guests of members of Congress who populate the visitors' galleries that hover above the House floor. Yarmuth recalled traveling to Israel in 2011, shortly after the last Netanyahu address on Capitol Hill, where Israeli men and women he encountered were thoroughly bewildered by the wild applause for their relatively unpopular prime minister. "I said, 'Well, all the AIPAC people were all in the gallery,' Yarmuth chuckled. "That's the kind of circus that surrounds all this." Watch a live stream of the speech Tuesday at RollCall.com   Plenty of outsiders — from lobbyists to constituents — are eager to see Netanyahu speak; an aide for Speaker John A. Boehner told CQ Roll Call that at least 350 requests are being fielded by the Ohio Republican's office. "I don't expect many empty seats on the floor," the aide said. "This is a big draw." But the fact that many Jewish, progressive and African-American Democrats are protesting the speech has set off something of a frenzy for extra tickets (each member gets at least one to give to a constituent or other guest). A House Democratic aide said the lawmaker she works for has fielded multiple calls from colleagues asking whether the member is attending and, if not, if that ticket is available. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., said his friend on the other side of the aisle, Michigan Republican Rep. Dan Benishek, has inquired about his guest pass. Lowenthal, who is Jewish, is struggling over whether to attend, saying he has talked a number of fellow Jewish members of the House Democratic Caucus — and a few of his Jewish golfing companions — and is still undecided. Regardless, Benishek can't have his extra ticket — Lowenthal said he's saving it for a guest. Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he won't be going to the speech, and also said his constituents aren't paying much attention to the optics on Capitol Hill. "I have a low-income district," he said. "They care about jobs and economic opportunity." One Jewish constituent, however, had expressed interested in attending the speech, and Butterfield bestowed his guest ticket upon that person. "I'm using my ticket productively," Butterfield told CQ Roll Call. "Just count me out on this one." Boehner, who orchestrated the invitation to Netanyahu along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dismissed criticism at a news conference Thursday that the speech would undercut negotiations to disarm Iran and provide Netanyahu with a bully pulpit at a sensitive time. "I’m glad most of my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, will be there to hear what he has to say," Boehner said. Related: Democrats Facing Choice Between Obama, Netanyahu Nearly Two Dozen House Democrats Call for Netanyahu Delay The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.