"The president of the United States heads up our foreign policy," Sanders told moderator E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and fellow at the Washington, D.C., think tank. "The idea that the president wasn't even consulted — that is wrong and not a good thing for our country."
Asked by Dionne whether he was "thinking of not going," Sanders replied, "I'm not thinking of not going. I am not going. I may watch it on TV."
Prior to Sanders' remarks, several House members had said they would boycott the speech. Advisers to Vice President Joe Biden said scheduling conflicts would keep him from attending. Later Monday, Sanders' district-mate, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), said he, too, would skip it.
“The unfortunate way that House leaders have unilaterally arranged this, and then heavily politicized it, has demolished the potential constructive value of this joint meeting," Leahy said in a statement. "They have orchestrated a tawdry and high-handed stunt that has embarrassed not only Israel but the Congress itself."
While Sanders was the first senator to say he'll boycott Netanyahu's address, Leahy plays a much larger role in U.S. foreign affairs. Until January, he chaired the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations and now serves as its ranking member.
"It has long been an unwritten rule and practice through the decades that when it comes to American foreign policy, we speak and act thoughtfully, with one voice when we can, with the national interests of the United States as our uppermost consideration, and with caution about the unintended consequences of unilateral actions like this," Leahy said. "They have diminished that valuable precedent.”
Like Sanders and Leahy, Welch criticized Boehner's decision to invite Netanyahu without consulting the president, calling it "a major mistake." He said he was particularly concerned that the address comes as U.S. and Iranian negotiators work toward a nuclear agreement — a process Netanyahu has panned — and as the Israeli prime minister faces reelection.
"So I think it was just bad timing and lack of, I think, deference to the usual protocols," Welch said. "And my preference would be that the prime minister postponed his speech until after the deadline on these Iran negotiations and after the election. I don't think Congress should become a forum, basically, for political campaigns in other countries."
On the other hand, Welch said, "I've always attended when I can, schedule permitting, visiting foreign leaders. And I believe, on behalf of Vermont, my responsibility is to show respect for foreign leaders who come to Congress."
Though Sanders’ remarks about the Netanyahu address dominated press coverage of his appearance at Brookings, much of the event focused on the senator’s economic agenda — and his presidential ambitions. Sanders delivered a half-hour lecture outlining his so-called “Agenda for America” and spent another 40 minutes answering questions from Dionne, fellow journalists and members of the audience.
Sanders recounted the many political races he ran and lost in the 1970s and ’80s, prompting Dionne to ask, “Are you running for president and, if you are, will the result be closer to the special election in 1971 or the 2012 reelection?”
“Well, with a little bit of luck, we’re beyond 1971,” Sanders said, referring to his 2 percent showing against former senator Robert Stafford. “But let me just say this, no great secret: I am giving serious thought to running for president of the United States.”
Arguing that “it is imperative that we have candidates who stand up for the working families of this country,” Sanders said, “I am giving serious thought to that. Don’t tell my wife that. She doesn’t necessarily agree.”
The independent acknowledged “it ain’t easy” to take on well-financed rivals and said he would only want to run if he could “do it well.”
“The decision that I’m going to have to reach is whether there is that willingness to stand up and fight back,” he said. “And if there’s not, I don’t want to run a futile campaign. If I run, I want to run to win. To run to win, we need millions of people actively involved.”
Noting that he has never run a negative television advertisement in his political career, Sanders said he would not seek to tarnish Clinton’s reputation in a possible primary.
“It is not my style to trash people,” he said. “It is not my style to run ugly, negative ads.”
Rather, Sanders said, he would seek to focus on the issues he cares about most.
“If I run and if Secretary Clinton runs, what I would hope would happen is that we would have a real, serious debate,” he said. “This is a woman I respect — clearly a very intelligent person who I think is interested in issues, by the way.”
As for Warren?
“Well, I’m not sure that Sen. Warren is going to be running for office,” he said. “I knew Elizabeth Warren before she was Elizabeth Warren — when she was a mere, brilliant Harvard Law School professor.”
Corrected Tuesday, February 10, at 5:01 p.m., to reflect the fact that Leahy no longer chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.