Why some Democratic senators describe Iran deal as a 'conscience vote'

The Democratic leadership has decided not to 'whip' members into unity on the Iran nuclear deal, but to leave the decision up to each individual senator – though that isn’t stopping a full-court press from the White House.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry testifies along with Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, right, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington July 23 to review the Iran nuclear agreement.

For a key group of “swing” Democrats in the Senate, party loyalty is not a factor as they consider their vote on the historic Iran nuclear agreement.

Nor is the president’s legacy the issue, though getting this deal through Congress would be one of President Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievements.

For some undecided Democratic senators – Republicans have largely made up their minds to oppose the deal – the Iran vote that’s coming in September is shaping up to be a “conscience vote” in which party affiliation takes a back seat.

Indeed, the Democratic leadership has decided not to “whip” members into unity, but to leave the decision up to each individual senator – though that isn’t stopping a full-court press from the White House. 

“Decisions about war and peace are conscience votes and they aren’t whipped traditionally,” explains an aide to Senate minority whip Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland told reporters last week that he likens the vote to one authorizing the use of military force.

“This is such an elevated decision that members have to make,” said Senator Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “You don’t look to someone else as to how you’re going to vote. This is something that you’re going to decide as to what’s in the best interests of our country.”

Several issues set this vote apart for the roughly dozen Democratic senators undecided about the deal. Some lawmakers, holding their cards close to the vest, aren’t saying much. Others mention the high-stakes consequences for the Middle East and America’s standing in the world, as well as strenuous objection from Israel.

“There are these watershed votes that have a real impact on how we see ourselves as a country, how we are seen in the world, and how we are perceived as an ally,” says Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware, a swing Democrat who is also on the Foreign Relations Committee. 

“I think this is a vote of conscience in ... that it has to be a vote that senators reflect on beyond sort of partisan or parochial or political interests,” he adds.

The Delawarean has received about 1,000 calls from constituents, and so far they fall 50-50 on the deal. Senator Coons describes the difficulty of the decision as he studies the agreement:

On the one hand, rejecting the deal “has significant implications” for America’s relations with allies who worked hard to negotiate a deal that lifts international sanctions on Iran in exchange for a sharply reduced nuclear program.

On the other, approving the agreement in the face of determined opposition from Israel and the grave concerns of other US allies in the region “also has consequences,” he says.

While the White House argues that a deal that prevents Iran from getting a bomb for more than a decade is better than an unrestrained Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounces it for leaving Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact. Iran is on the path to “a much bigger nuclear arsenal,” he says, plus it gets a “windfall” of money to wreak havoc in the neighborhood. 

Israel’s concern plays high in the mind of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York and other Jewish lawmakers in Congress. Like Cardin, who is also Jewish, Senator Schumer says he’s going to put country above party – but that’s not his only consideration.

“I’m not going to let party or pressure or anything else. [sic] What’s good for America first and foremost, and what’s good for Israel, which of course I care a lot about,” the senator said in an interview with MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, last week.

It doesn’t look like Republicans will be able to muster the two-thirds majority needed in both chambers to block the president from lifting congressionally approved sanctions on Iran. But neither the president nor opponents of the deal are taking anything for granted.

Since the deal was announced July 14, the vice president and the president have personally talked with lawmakers, and Cabinet officials have been on the Hill this week briefing members of Congress and testifying. It has been an informational, geostrategic sales pitch – not one about sealing the president’s legacy. 

On Thursday, the president met with about a dozen House Democrats in the White House situation room. He said there was no better deal to be had and told them they needed to be “the wall” against the deal’s opponents, according to Politico. He urged them to declare their support now, to avoid heavy lobbying from pro-Israel groups trying to kill the deal.

Anti-deal ads are already running on television. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, will be on the Hill next week, and plans to follow lawmakers to their districts during the August recess. It hopes to generate the same kind of grassroots opposition that Obama faced with health-care reform during the summer recess of 2009, the Wall Street Journal reports.

This is a high-stakes vote for lawmakers, which is the way it often is with “conscience votes.” Senate historian Betty Koed recalls the late Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon, who in 1995 was the only Republican to vote against a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution – causing it to fall one vote short in the Senate. 

Of course, lawmakers have to juggle competing interests all the time, says Jim Manley, former spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, when Senator Reid was majority leader. What sets this vote apart is its strategic import, he says.

“This is a vote that transcends party and has huge geopolitical ramifications,” says Mr. Manley. “It would be really tough to whip it.”

In fact, he says, too much pressure from the White House could actually backfire.

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