WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden is expected to miss Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial address to a joint meeting of Congress because of foreign travel, Biden's office said Friday.
The announcement comes amid deep White House irritation over Netanyahu's decision to accept an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, without either party consulting the administration. The White House blasted the move as a breach of diplomatic protocol and said President Barack Obama would not meet with Netanyahu during next month's visit.
But Biden, as president of the Senate, would typically have attended a joint meeting of Congress, taking his familiar seat just behind the speaker's podium. Whether Biden would still carry out his ceremonial duties became the focus of increased speculation this week as some Democratic lawmakers said they planned to skip the March 3 speech.
On Friday, Biden's office confirmed that the vice president was expected to be abroad during Netanyahu's visit. Biden's office did not announce any details of where the vice president would be traveling, but insisted the unspecified trip had been in the works before the prime minister's speech was announced.
Biden has only missed one prior joint meeting of Congress: a 2011 address to lawmakers by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose speech coincided with another overseas trip by the vice president.
Obama and Netanyahu have long had a tense relationship, in part because of the Israeli leader's skepticism of the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran. Netanyahu has backed congressional efforts to pass new sanctions on Iran during the negotiations, again putting him at odds with Obama, who has vowed to veto such legislation.
Biden had his own tense run-in with Netanyahu in 2010, when Israel announced new settlement construction in East Jerusalem while the vice president was in the country for meetings with the prime minister and other officials. The move infuriated the U.S., and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the timing of the Israeli announcement "insulting."
Netanyahu's visit to Washington next month has its own timing issues, beyond Biden's travel plans. The prime minister will speak to Congress just three weeks before the deadline for the U.S. and its international partners to reach a framework nuclear agreement with Iran, one that could provide an outline for a more comprehensive deal to be finalized by late June.
Senate Democrats have agreed to withhold their support for sanctions legislation until after that March deadline.
Netanyahu will also arrive in Washington on the heels of Israel's March 17 election, sparking criticism that he is trying to use the visit to bolster his political prospects. The White House cited the close proximity of the election as the reason Obama won't meet with Netanyahu, saying the president wanted to avoid the appearance of taking sides.
At least three prominent Democratic lawmakers have vowed to skip the speech as well, saying they disapprove of Boehner's decision to invite the Israeli leader without consulting Obama. Reps. John Lewis of Georgia, G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon announced their decisions earlier this week.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president believes individual members of Congress should make their own decisions about whether or not to attend.
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