- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The Obama administration’s uphill domestic battle to curb Iran’s nuclear program got a huge shot in the arm Sunday with the endorsement of the top Senate Democrat, who said it was the best way to protect Israel from an atomic bomb.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) spent the weekend calling associates to inform them of his decision, then released a long statement explaining his reasoning. He called the agreement — reached last month in a historic deal between world powers and Tehran — the “best path” to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The Reid endorsement is a crucial win toward White House efforts to convince enough members of Congress to vote for the deal, which would ease crippling economic sanctions on Iran and, subsequently, has been attacked by Republicans and pro-Israel groups. White House officials have maintained confidence that opponents of the pact won’t be able to put together the 67 Senate votes, or 290 from the House, needed to override a presidential veto of legislation blocking the pact.
In the statement posted on Twitter, released after he broke the news to the Washington Post on Sunday, Reid went to great lengths to assuage the concerns of the pro-Israel crowd.
“I believe a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, and the security of Israel is of the utmost importance to me,” Reid said in his statement. For over four decades in Congress, the senator said, “my support for the safety and security of the Israeli people has been at the core of my views on the Middle East.”
Attempts to reach the Israeli Embassy in Washington for comment Sunday were unsuccessful.
But the deal isn’t a sure thing on Capitol Hill just yet. There are still a number of influential Democratic lawmakers who have not tipped their hands, and their support will be critical for the administration to avoid losing the fight on the Hill. That would then require President Barack Obama to exercise his veto powers.
So far, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York are the only Democratic senators to publicly break with the White House over the deal. So far, 27 Democrats in all have formally endorsed the deal.
But it won’t be easy for opponents to scuttle the agreement. To do so would require at least 13 Senate Democrats, or 44 House Democrats, to vote against what would be among Obama’s most significant foreign-policy accomplishments during his two terms in office.
Foreign Policy has identified eight key Democratic senators who have so far refused to make a decision — at least publicly — on how they will vote. They include Michigan’s Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow; West Virginia’s Joe Manchin; Maryland’s Ben Cardin; Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; Virginia’s Mark Warner; New Jersey’s Cory Booker; and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
It’s unclear what effect Reid’s decision will have on his fellow Democrats, but his forceful endorsement of the deal will no doubt buoy the White House in its attempts to bring party brethren on board.
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