There will be no "boycott" of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before Congress next month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.
But while she downplayed reports of an organized protest, she suggested some lawmakers might just be too busy to attend. And at least two Democrats have already decided they won't be on hand.
"I don't think anybody should use the word 'boycott,'" Pelosi said in her weekly press conference. "When these heads of state come, people are here doing their work, they're trying to pass legislation, they're meeting with their constituents and the rest. It's not a high-priority item for them."
The Netanyahu address has drawn sharp criticism from Democrats, who view the invitation from House Speaker John Boehner as a means of undermining the Obama administration's nuclear negotiations with Iran. The Israeli leader, many congressional Republicans, and some Democrats favor increased sanctions, but Obama has asked them to hold off until member nations of the U.N. Security Council can try to deter Iran's nuclear ambitions at the bargaining table.
At least two Democrats have now confirmed publicly that they won't attend. Reps. John Lewis and G.K. Butterfield both said Thursday they would skip the speech, according to the Associated Press. "I think it's an affront to the president and the State Department what the speaker did," Lewis told AP, while Butterfield said he was "very disappointed the speaker would cause such a ruckus" with the invite.
Hill Democrats are disgruntled that Netanyahu would so openly defy the administration's wishes, and they've criticized Boehner for extending the invitation without consulting leaders on the other side of the aisle. That grumbling has led to reports that large numbers of Democrats may choose to skip the speech in protest.
If the House floor is replete with empty seats, Pelosi said, it will be due to run-of-the-mill scheduling conflicts, not bad blood with Israel. "Things happen in people's schedule," she said. "You just never know." She blamed Boehner for the unusual invitation process, saying it was incumbent on the majority party to "demonstrate that you're going to fill those seats."
On Wednesday, a Democratic leadership aide said there was no evidence of an organized effort to stage a boycott, only individual members grumbling about the speech. Another aide for a high-ranking Democratic member added that, despite the widely shared dissatisfaction with the invitation, party leadership was not behind any push to keep members away.
Pelosi said she herself plans to be in attendance, though she's hopeful Netanyahu or Republicans will change course and nix the address. She added that the political nature of the visit raises questions about the entire process of hearing from foreign heads of state. "Maybe we even have to review the idea of joint sessions of Congress," she said.