Iran nuclear deal: Can Senate 'swing Democrats' scuttle the agreement?

About a dozen 'swing' Democrats in the Senate could join Republicans to reject the deal. Lawmakers in both chambers can choose to approve, reject, or even do nothing about the Iran nuclear agreement.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada (c.) is flanked by Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York as he addresses reporters at the US Capitol in Washington on June 16, 2015. As heir presumptive to Senator Reid as Democratic leader, Senator Schumer could be expected to back the White House on the Iran nuclear deal. But he is also a strong supporter of Israel and says he still wants to study the deal.

At about 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Sen. Chris Coons’s cellphone went off. It was the vice president calling to go over the details of the Iran nuclear deal, agreed to just hours before in Vienna.

The two men talked for half an hour – both Democrats, both from Delaware, and both familiar with the details of Iran’s nuclear program, such as centrifuges and uranium enrichment (Senator Coons studied chemistry in college).

It was a useful conversation. Coons shared his concerns, and Vice President Joe Biden addressed them, filling in details that Coons was unaware of. In particular, Mr. Biden mentioned US sanctions against ballistic-missile technology and weapons exports to Iran that will remain in place, despite the deal’s lifting of other sanctions in exchange for blocking Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

But Coons is still undecided about how he’ll vote on the historic Iran agreement. He’s one of about a dozen “swing” Democrats in the Senate who could join Republicans to ultimately reject the deal. At a maximum, that would prevent the lifting of congressional sanctions against Iran (unlikely). At a minimum, it would embarrass President Obama on his chief foreign policy legacy and undermine America’s diplomatic standing and reliability as a global negotiating power.

In an interview with the Monitor, Coons said there were “quite a few” Democrats, particularly on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations where he sits, who are undecided. One of their concerns is the long-term viability of a deal that they say has been cut with a cheater.

“If all I was responsible for was the next five years, I’d support this,” he said. “But the test of whether this is a good deal is whether it is sustainable or enforceable not for five years or 10 years, but for 20 or more. And from that perspective, the history of Iranian cheating and support for terrorism has to make anyone cautious.”

In a technical sense, Congress’s role in this matter is rather limited.

Members can choose to approve, reject, or even do nothing about the agreement. If they reject it, their disapproval would prevent the lifting of congressionally passed sanctions only – not international sanctions or ones applied by the US executive branch. Being an international agreement, rather than a treaty, the deal itself would carry on as long as all the players continued to abide by it.

Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress, vow to disapprove the deal. But even rejecting statutory sanctions would be very difficult for lawmakers, who have 60 days to review the agreement: It would take a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate to override a promised presidential veto of a rejection.

Even if a dozen Democrats defected to eventually kill the deal in the Senate, the White House still has a reliable firewall of Democrats in the House to preserve it, analysts say.

Indeed, the Democratic leadership is with Mr. Obama on this one – from Hillary Clinton, who threw her support behind the deal when visiting the Hill on Tuesday, to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California and Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada.

“If you look at the base of the caucuses, the statements coming out of Capitol Hill are overwhelmingly positive. So what we’re really talking about is this narrow swing group” of about 40 Democrats in the House and 13 or 14 Democrats in the Senate, says Dylan Williams, chief lobbyist for J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group that welcomes the deal. In contract, Israel strenuously opposes the agreement. 

But the unlikelihood of defeat in Congress doesn’t make the president’s fight for support inconsequential, which is why the administration is working quickly and aggressively to shore up Democratic support. Obama is speaking out on the issue and holding a press conference Wednesday afternoon. Earlier Wednesday, Biden came to the Hill to brief House Democrats.

“My real hope is that if this is as strong an agreement as is presented, that it won’t just eke by by some narrow margin of a handful of Democrats.... That’s hardly going to inspire international confidence,” says Coons, who wants to dive into the agreement’s details, talk to all sides, and await hearings and briefings before making up his mind.

Based on the immediate, visceral opposition to the agreement by Republican leaders and members in Congress, it seems unlikely the White House will make inroads there. And strong pressure from Israel, pro-Israeli groups, and conservative military experts will be applied to pro-Israel Democrats, who draw a lot of support from Jewish voters and donors. 

That puts someone like Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York in a bind. As a member of the Senate Democratic leadership and the expected Democratic leader after Senator Reid retires, Senator Schumer could be expected to uphold the White House position. But he also is strongly pro-Israel.

“He has very deep ties with Israel and Jewish groups. This is a very difficult position for him,” says Ilan Goldenberg, senior fellow and Middle East expert at the Center for New American Security, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.

Indeed, Schumer – like many Senate Democrats – demurred from offering an opinion on the deal Tuesday, saying instead that he wants to study it. That they didn't come out swinging against the deal is a good sign for the president, some observers say.

In the end, analysts such as Mr. Goldenberg say it’s unlikely that Congress will block the lifting of congressional sanctions and cross the president.

The voting numbers don’t point in that direction. Neither does the alternative to a deal, which could well be the unraveling of the international coalition and an Iran free to develop nuclear weapons – or be stopped through military action and perhaps even war, deal supporters argue.

“Congress can talk a lot about a better deal, but if they don’t want this agreement, then they own the problem,” says Goldenberg.

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