US Congress invites Netanyahu, Obama blindsided – Reuters


* Obama not consulted in advance, Speaker Boehner says

* Netanyahu may meet with Obama during visit

(Adds comments from hearing, background)

By Patricia Zengerle and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters) – U.S. House of Representatives
Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday invited Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without consulting
President Barack Obama, and a White House spokesman questioned
whether protocol had been violated.

An Israeli official said Netanyahu, whose relationship with
Obama has often been tense, was looking into the possibility of
meeting with Obama when he comes to Washington to address a
joint session of Congress on Feb. 11.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The protocol would
suggest that the leader of one country would contact the leader
of another country when he’s traveling there. This particular
event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

Boehner announced the invitation the morning after Obama
pledged in his State of the Union address to veto any
legislation passed by Congress to toughen sanctions against Iran
while Washington and other powers negotiate with Tehran over its
nuclear program.

Asked by a reporter if inviting Netanyahu without speaking
to the White House was a “poke in the eye” to Obama, Boehner, a
Republican, said, “The Congress can make this decision on its
own. I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye.”

Lawmakers trying to amass enough support to override any
veto by Obama are developing several pieces of Iran-related
legislation, including a bill to tighten sanctions if a final
nuclear agreement is not reached before the end of June.

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a
contentious hearing on Iran with administration officials. The
Senate Banking Committee is due to vote on the sanctions bill
next week.

Netanyahu’s visit to the United States is scheduled for five
weeks before Israel’s March 17 elections. It could help him
underscore his main campaign theme that he is best placed to
tackle regional security threats.

Speaking to reporters traveling with Obama aboard Air Force
One, Earnest said the White House was reserving judgment until
there was a chance to discuss Netanyahu’s trip with Israeli
officials.

“We’ll need to hear from them about what their plans are and
what he plans to say in his remarks to Congress before we have a
decision to make about any meeting,” Earnest said.

In a statement announcing the invitation, Boehner said, “In
this time of challenge, I am asking the prime minister to
address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran
pose to our security and way of life.”

Iran’s nuclear program has been one of the more contentious
issues in the Netanyahu-Obama relationship. Congressional
Republicans have accused the president of making too many
concessions to Tehran and therefore not being sufficiently
supportive of Israel.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified on
Wednesday that there was still a “credible chance” for
international negotiators to reach an agreement on Iran’s
nuclear program.

He said negotiators were aiming to conclude major elements
of an agreement by the end of March and complete technical
details by the end of June.

Lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing insisted that Congress
should be allowed to vote on any final nuclear agreement. Some
disagreed with the administration’s strategy, including allowing
Iran to continue low level uranium enrichment in any final pact.

“The more I hear from the administration … the more it
sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran,”
said Senator Robert Menendez, the leading Democrat on the
Foreign Relations panel.

Boehner said the House would also likely at some point hold
hearings on more sanctions against Iran.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Richard
Cowan; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill
Trott, David Storey, Toni Reinhold)

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