U.S. Congress invites Netanyahu for Iran speech, Obama blindsided

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem January 18, 2015. REUTERS/Abir Sultan/Pool

By Patricia Zengerle and Roberta Rampton WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran without consulting President Barack Obama, and the White House questioned whether protocol had been violated. Setting up a diplomatic showdown on an issue that has sharply divided Obama and congressional Republicans, Boehner announced the invitation the day after Obama pledged in his State of the Union address to veto Iran sanctions legislation being developed in Congress. 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 meeting of Congress - both the Senate and House - 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." 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. 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. PLANNING BEGAN LAST YEAR A Republican aide said Boehner's office and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's office began discussing an invitation to Netanyahu at the staff level last year. The aide said Boehner called Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer to gauge Netanyahu's interest on Jan. 8, just after he was re-elected Speaker. Dermer responded with "a quick affirmative response" and Boehner's office offered a series of potential dates, the Republican aide said. An Israeli embassy spokesman declined comment. Netanyahu's address on Feb. 11 would make him only the second foreign leader to address a joint meeting of Congress three times. The other was Britain's wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill. In a statement announcing the invitation to Netanyahu, 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. Netanyahu has been a vocal critic of Obama's Iran diplomacy, saying the administration is making too many concessions to Iran for too little in return. Congressional Republicans, who overwhelmingly back stronger sanctions legislation, and some Democrats 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 in the U.S. Senate 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. Separately, the U.S. State Department said U.S. and Iranian negotiators would hold talks in Switzerland on Friday and Saturday about Iran's nuclear program. 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. (Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Arshad Mohammed, Matt Spetalnick and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill Trott, David Storey, Toni Reinhold)