Meet the Democrats Who Can Make or Break Obama’s Nuclear Deal
The White House is locked in fierce negotiations with Tehran, but the biggest roadblocks to a deal may be skeptical members of the president’s own party.
If President Barack Obama’s administration manages to strike a landmark nuclear deal with Iran this month, the White House will turn its attention to wooing a bloc of staunchly pro-Israel Democrats in Congress who have the power to block the principal foreign-policy goal of the president’s second term.
The White House agreed to a legislative compromise in May known as the Iran Nuclear Review Act, which gives Congress 30 days to review a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program if the deal is sent to Capitol Hill by July 9. If a deal is reached but sent to lawmakers after that deadline, a prospect that looks increasingly likely, Congress gets 60 days to review the accord. After reviewing the deal, the legislation allows lawmakers to pass a “resolution of disapproval” that would permanently prevent the president from waiving or suspending congressional sanctions against Iran — a key component of any final nuclear deal. Sanctions imposed on Iran by the United Nations and Congress have battered the Iranian economy and driven its currency to record lows; Tehran has consistently said it wouldn’t accept a deal that left the sanctions in place, even if Russia, China, and Washington’s other negotiating partners were to agree to drop their own sanctions as part of the agreement.
The resolution of disapproval requires a simple majority to pass, but Obama would almost certainly veto the bill if it amassed enough votes. To override a veto, Republicans would need enough Democratic votes for a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate. The high bar for blowing up a deal gives the White House an advantage that Republicans have privately acknowledged might be insurmountable.
Still, Democrats with long-standing ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying outfit that opposes the nuclear deal taking shape in Vienna, will face intense pressure to break with the president. They will also face some pressure from antiwar groups and nonproliferation organizations that support a deal, such as MoveOn.org and the Ploughshares Fund.
Since most lawmakers don’t obsess over the minutia of nonproliferation agreements, a few key Democrats will be pivotal in carrying large blocs of votes after a potential deal is announced. These are the top Democrats to watch for as the talks near a conclusion.
For many Democrats, Sen. Chuck Schumer is the single most important vote in Congress on the Iran deal.
Outside of Sen. Bob Menendez, who was indicted on federal corruption charges in April, the New York senator has been the harshest Democratic critic of the Iran talks in the Senate. Earlier this year, he bucked the White House and joined with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to cosponsor a bill that threatened to impose new sanctions on Iran if no deal was reached. In January, he signed a letter to the White House warning that moderate Democrats would ignore the president’s concerns about passing new Iran sanctions legislation if no deal emerged after March 24.
In late March, he became an important ally to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) after agreeing to cosign the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, a bill that paved the way for a congressional review of the deal despite initial opposition from the White House.
“Schumer was a huge get,” Jamil Jaffer, former chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy. “The real question is whether he will be able to stand up to massive White House pressure.”
Given his close ties to wealthy pro-Israel donors and his status as the future leader of Senate Democrats, Schumer is expected to be a bellwether for many wavering liberals.
“If Schumer supports this deal, then it will give most Democrats cover to support it,” said a Democratic congressional aide. “If he opposes it, then I think the White House is going to have a very tough time.”
Schumer’s spokesman, Matt House, told FP the senator would “wait to see an actual agreement before making his mind up.”
Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the chair of the Democratic National Committee and the first Jewish congresswoman elected from Florida. Her unique set of allegiances to the president and a district that is both heavily Jewish and skeptical of an Iran deal puts her in one of the most difficult positions in Congress.
In the last year, Wasserman Schultz has been coy about her views on an emerging Iran deal, which has infuriated many hawkish pro-Israel groups. AIPAC recently sent out a mailer urging Wasserman Schultz not to accept a deal that “does not eliminate the Iranian pathway” to a nuclear weapon, a rare act of brinkmanship from an organization traditionally viewed as bipartisan. Given her credibility among loyal Democrats and pro-Israel hawks, her views have become a major source of speculation for Hill watchers.
“In many ways, Debbie is in the biggest political conundrum because her base is so overwhelmingly hawkish on Middle East issues, but she can under no circumstances throw the president under the bus,” said a longtime Democrat and foreign-policy operative.
Though no longer in the Senate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still carries significant clout as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for 2016. In recent meetings with pro-Israel donors, Clinton has reportedly sent mixed messages about her support for an Iran deal: Deep-pocketed donors who believe a deal advances world peace think she supports their view, but critics of the deal say she shares their disapproval.
Ultimately, it will be difficult for her to distance herself from any agreement given the curriculum vitae of her foreign-policy advisor Jake Sullivan, who helped get the talks off the ground and lobbied Congress in support of the negotiations in November. Sullivan, who is now the top foreign-policy aide on the Clinton campaign, spoke favorably about the deal last month at an event hosted by the Truman National Security Project.
“We actually can deliver a deal that, assuming that it hits the right marks in its terms, can prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and make the United States, Israel, and everybody else better off,” Sullivan said.
Though she doesn’t always make big headlines, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York holds considerable sway with both hawks and doves in the Democratic Party. Her formal power stems from her position as the top Democrat on the influential House Appropriations Committee, but her close ties with both progressives and pro-Israel hawks make her a guiding light for many liberals. “Nita is the elder stateswoman when it comes to foreign-policy leaders in the House Democratic caucus,” said one former congressional aide. “She is deeply respected across the ideological divide.”
This doesn’t bode well for the White House: Lowey has consistently raised doubts about an Iran deal and criticized the administration for offering even mild criticism of Israel as it backtracked on support for a two-state solution. As late as April, she remained deeply skeptical of the deal: “Far too many details remain undetermined to ensure Congress and the American people that we are on track to permanently and verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” she said.
Ben Cardin, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a bit of a wild card. In front of pro-Israel audiences, the Maryland senator has raised profound skepticism about a deal with Iran and has castigated the media for its coverage of issues related to Israel and the Middle East. But after replacing Menendez as the top Democrat on the committee, Cardin has proven to be much more cooperative with the administration than his irascible predecessor.
Earlier this year, he played a key role in modifying the Iran Nuclear Review Act during negotiations between the White House and Corker. He has also warned his colleagues against prejudging the outcome of the talks.
“Senator Cardin is waiting to see what an agreement — if there is one — will look like before judging its contents,” his spokeswoman Sue Walitsky told FP. “He is urging his colleagues to do the same.”
Given his prominence on the foreign relations panel, many will be looking to Cardin as they formulate their response to a potential deal.
Few observers envision that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will break with Obama on a nuclear deal, but the No. 2 Democrat in the House could be a different story. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland is one of AIPAC’s closest allies in the lower chamber and has repeatedly expressed concern about an emerging nuclear deal.
In a lengthy statement laying out his red lines last week, Hoyer said “negotiations should end if Iran cannot make the tough decisions required to achieve the objectives that the administration, the U.S. Congress, the [International Atomic Energy Agency], and the United Nations demand.”
Hoyer’s red lines largely matched those included in a bipartisan letter posted in late June by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While those demands are less stringent than AIPAC’s “five requirements for a deal,” Hoyer is said to still be very much in line with the lobbying powerhouse on this issue.
Nobody on Capitol Hill is quite sure where Sen. Richard Blumenthal might come down on an Iran deal, but he’s certainly feeling the heat. The Connecticut senator has been the target of a $1.4 million ad campaign launched by the American Security Initiative, a shadowy 501(c)(4) organization that doesn’t disclose its donors and opposes the president’s negotiations. Last year, Blumenthal was a cosponsor and early backer of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act opposed by the White House. However, as the administration made its case for diplomacy, he opposed calls for an immediate vote on sanctions legislation.
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