Fight on Iran Deal is All But Over
Eli Lake and Josh Rogin
Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal in Congress admit they can
no longer kill the accord. Their focus now is making sure there will be a vote
on the agreement at all, and salvaging some political benefit from their
well-funded bid to stop it.
Lawmakers, Congressional staffers and lobbyists opposed to the
deal reached in Vienna last month tell us they are now fighting to get more than
60 votes in the Senate for a resolution of disapproval to avoid a filibuster by
Democrats supporting President Barack Obama. That is a far cry from the 67 votes
in the Senate needed, along with two thirds of the House, to overturn an
expected presidential veto of that resolution.
Yes, overturning an Obama veto was always a longshot. House
Speaker John Boehner in April was privately
warning Republicans that his party didn't have the votes to stop the
deal. Now Republican leaders are saying this out in the open.
Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
Wednesday it was “very unlikely” there would be 67 votes against
the deal in the Senate, but there would be a “bipartisan majority” voting to
disapprove of the deal. As of now, only two Senate Democrats and 14 House
Democrats have come out against the pact. (The Republicans hold 54 seats
in the Senate.)
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is threatening to filibuster
the bill altogether, and unless at least four more Democrats promise to vote
against the deal, Reid may succeed. Critics of the deal are
outraged at the idea that Congress’s only chance at oversight of the
initiative might not even get a hearing on the Senate floor. The White House is
pushing for the deal to be filibustered, so that Obama won’t have to
veto a resolution disapproving the signature foreign policy accomplishment of
his presidency. Such talk has prompted Congressional Republicans to consider
moving the legislation first in the House, where passage is assured.
Looking farther ahead, deal opponents are trying to salvage
political gains from their pending legislative defeat. Republicans are using the
issue to batter their Democratic opponents for 2016 in
ads, and the nuclear deal has already become a factor in Senate races in
both swing states in presidential elections.
Most of the Republican presidential candidates have made their
opposition to the Iran deal a
key plank in their foreign policy platforms. Republicans in Congress
are preparing several
new Iran sanctions bills for the fall, none of which is likely to
become law, in an attempt to keep the issue alive politically amid increasingly
numbers for the deal.
Indeed, from a political angle, not all those who oppose the
nuclear deal believe that a filibuster of the Senate disapproval resolution is a
bad thing. Some feel that the White House is miscalculating, and that shutting
down the process for a Congressional vote would only weaken the deal further.
“I’m hoping Democrats filibuster the vote. As an opponent
of the deal who seeks to delegitimize this deal, nothing could be better,”
said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of
The administration was always going to be able to implement
the nuclear agreement even if Congress did initially vote against it,
this argument goes, and if Congressional oversight is stifled, that will only
bolster the ability of the next president to scuttle the deal, or at least
tighten its enforcement and punish Iran’s other illicit activities.
Dubowitz claimed the drive to delegitimize the deal has
succeeded, even if it failed to stop its implementation: “On policy, deal
opponents won. On politics, deal supporters won."
Nonetheless, many Republicans now acknowledge in private that
they were handed both a political and a policy defeat on the nuclear deal. Since
Congress left town for its August recess, momentum has largely been with the
White House. Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and staunch Israel
supporter, came out earlier than expected against the nuclear deal on August 6.
But his opposition did not have coattails, even in his own state. The same week
that Schumer announced he would vote to disapprove the deal, the junior senator
from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, announced her support for it.
A week after Schumer's announcement, Senator Jon Tester, a
Democrat from Montana, announced that he, too, supported the nuclear deal --
even though his state was bombarded with television
ads against the Iran accord and the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee had considered him a possible yes vote on the resolution of
disapproval. The only other Democrat who has come out against the deal since
Schumer's announcement is Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who was forced
to give up his seat as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee this spring after being indicted by the Justice Department on
corruption charges. Menendez, a fierce critic of Iran, was always expected to
oppose the deal.
The pro-deal side of the fight has been willing to threaten
the political futures of Democrats who oppose the president, while opponents of
the deal have not. One pro-Israel lobbyist told us that the community of donors,
fund-raisers and activists opposing the nuclear accord have yet to decide
whether they will support primary opponents of the Democrats who vote with the
president. Contrast this to the White House, which suggested earlier this month
that Democrats may want
to support an alternative leader in the Senate to Schumer, who was
the consensus candidate to replace Harry Reid when he retires next year.
In the Senate, there is now only a handful of Democrats who
have yet to say how they will vote on the resolution of disapproval, assuming it
actually comes to a vote. With the announcement Thursday by Tom Carper of
Delaware that he will support the deal, 30 Democrats have said they
will back the president. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jeff Merkley
of Oregon have yet to say how they will vote, but all are eventually expected to
come out in favor of the Iran deal.
According to one whip count from a prominent Republican Senate
office, there are now only 12 truly undecided votes among the Senate Democrats.
Among those, opponents of the deal have focused their efforts on eight of them,
according to one lobbyist: Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Cory Booker
of New Jersey, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Bob Casey
of Pennsylvania, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Warner of Virginia and Ron
Wyden of Oregon.
Each undecided Democrat will have to weigh the risk of voter
disapproval for supporting the deal against the intra-party pressure to back the
president and the position of their presumptive presidential candidate, Hillary
Clinton. The White House will win enough Democrats to stave off a Congressional
rejection of the Iran deal. The fight now is over whether the president can stop
that resolution from even coming to a vote.