All eyes on Chuck Schumer: Why the Iran deal may hinge on the Dems' future Senate leader

The senator's position on the Iran deal will be influential within his conference -- and anti-deal groups know it

Published July 16, 2015 4:43PM (EDT)

Sen. Chuck Schumer  (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Sen. Chuck Schumer (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

Those opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal recognize that they have a limited shot at derailing it through Congress. Each chamber likely would have to override a presidential veto to bar President Obama from lifting nuclear sanctions. This would be some kind of feat. But they're going to give it their best effort, and it will be a formidable one.

Obviously not a single dollar worth of lobbying or messaging will have to be spent on persuading Republican lawmakers to reject the deal. They uniformly hate it because (a) it is a diplomatic agreement and (b) President Obama and John Kerry were the ones who negotiated it. The only prominent Republican whose support might have been in play was that of Rand Paul. Paul's staff took its time issuing a statement but eventually came out against the deal. There wasn't really any space for him to do otherwise.

The pressure campaign will focus on Democrats in the House and Senate. As my colleague Simon Maloy wrote, Democrats are acting like... what's the word?... they're acting like "Democrats" on this issue: completely terrified of supporting a diplomatic agreement with Evil Iran because it might make them look soft on Israel.

Republicans, and groups opposing the deal, can smell Democratic hesitation from miles away, before the Democrats are even aware that they're hesitating, and they intend to exploit that. First there are the unfortunately savvy Senate Republican plans to split the Democrats by introducing various pieces of legislation on which they may not be excited about voting:

Some Senate Republicans are thinking about moving a motion of approval of the deal, believing it would put Democrats in a tough spot ahead of next year’s elections. Such a move in the upper chamber could lead to less than half of the Senate backing the president, allowing for more favorable headlines for the GOP. The House, however, is more likely to pass a resolution of disapproval.

A third option is to move legislation sponsored by Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) placing new sanctions on Iran, which the Banking Committee passed earlier this year and has Democratic support.

“All options are on the table,” said a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations panel who requested anonymity. “I wouldn’t take anything off.”

It won't just be neoconservative groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel backing Republicans' efforts to kill the deal, either: the American-Israeli Political Action Committee is all-in now, too. The group pretended not to be against diplomatic engagement with Iran for much of the nuclear negotiating process, not wanting to make enemies of its Democratic allies by stepping on the Obama administration's toes. Now the deal's done, and AIPAC is openly lobbying against it. "We strongly believe that the alternative to this bad deal is a better deal," its statement read. "Congress should reject this agreement, and urge the administration to work with our allies to maintain economic pressure on Iran while offering to negotiate a better deal that will truly close off all Iranian paths to a nuclear weapon. Congress should insist on a better deal."

The lobbying effort will spend an extraordinary amount of time, effort and money focusing on one person: Sen. Chuck Schumer, the incoming Senate Democratic leader. "It’s a tough call for Schumer," The Hill reports, "who represents many Jewish constituents in New York. Groups opposed to the Iran deal plan to spend tens of millions of dollars on a lobbying campaign to quash it, according to an official at one Jewish group. "

Among the pressure tactics used will be a "major rally next week in Manhattan’s Times Square... expected to draw 10,000 to 15,000 people" urging Democrats to vote against the deal. Democrats like Chuck Schumer, who represents "Manhattan's Times Square," as well as the rest of New York, in the United States Senate.

Noah Pollak, head of the Emergency Committee for Israel, is laser-locked on forcing Schumer to vigorously oppose the deal.

“If Schumer comes out and says, ‘I looked at the bill and studied its details and think it’s a good deal and will stop Iran from getting weapons,’ there will be zero hope of overriding an Obama veto,” said Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, which funded a six-figure Web campaign targeting Schumer earlier this year.

“If Schumer says this doesn’t do it, it lifts the arms embargo and doesn’t have anytime, anywhere inspections, then we have a fight on our hands. He’s a linchpin or a bellwether,” he added.

I would say that Noah Pollak is correct in this political calculation!

So what's it gonna be, Chuck Schumer? Perhaps he'll try to vote against it but quietly, without making much of an public messaging effort. This would require Schumer, however, to keep his mouth shut around television cameras, which might prove to be too impossible of a task for him.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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