WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fuming Democrats accused Republicans on Thursday of breaking protocol by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting them, challenging Israel's assertion that the invitation was extended by both U.S. political parties.
Netanyahu's government issued a statement on Thursday saying the invitation had been extended by the "two-party leadership" of Congress, but congressional aides said they knew of no members of the party who had been consulted.
Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, said the invitation to Netanyahu by Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner was "hubris."
Pelosi, a former House Speaker, said it was unusual that Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not consult Democratic leaders before reaching out to a foreign leader.
"It's out of the ordinary that the Speaker would decide that he would be inviting people to a joint session without any bipartisan consultation," she said at a weekly news conference.
Harry Reid, who leads the Democrats in the U.S. Senate, also said he was not consulted. "But you know, he's a leader of a country. He's going to come give a speech to a joint session of Congress. We'll listen to what he has to say," Reid told reporters.
Boehner announced on Wednesday that Netanyahu had been invited to speak to Congress about Iran. President Barack Obama's administration was not consulted, prompting the White House to question whether protocol had been breached.
The surprise invitation set up a diplomatic showdown on an issue that has sharply divided the Obama administration and congressional Republicans.
Boehner announced the invitation the day after the Democratic president pledged in his State of the Union address to veto Iran sanctions legislation being developed in Congress. Republicans, who worry that Obama is giving up too much in nuclear talks, have made passing legislation to clamp down on Tehran one of their top priorities.
Netanyahu's relationship with Obama has often been tense. The Israeli leader in particular has been a vocal critic of Obama's Iran diplomacy.
The flap over the invitation added to a growing perception that Israel's government is becoming a partisan Republican player in U.S. politics, despite historically close ties to lawmakers in both parties.
Pelosi said she did not think Netanyahu's visit on March 3 was "appropriate and helpful" two weeks before elections in his own country and amid delicate international talks to curb Iran's nuclear program.
Despite Obama's insistence that doing so could harm nuclear talks with Tehran, Republicans and some Democrats are developing several Iran-related bills that they hope to pass quickly, now that Republicans control both houses of Congress for the first time in eight years.
U.S. administration officials said that neither Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry would meet with Netanyahu during his visit in early March because it is so close to the Israeli elections.
Republicans strongly backed the invitation to Netanyahu.
Republican Representative Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Congress was exercising its proper constitutional role.
"To ask a foreign leader who is at the center of a huge number of the challenges facing the country to come talk to Congress, how is that not within our purview as an independent branch of government, to hear from him directly?" he said.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by David Lawder, Richard Cowan, David Alexander and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Toni Reinhold