Vice President Joe Biden met House Democrats in hopes of securing their support for the nuclear accord with Iran, as the White House confronts a tougher than expected fight to ensure that the deal survives congressional review.
The private breakfast Thursday with a small group of lawmakers at the Naval Observatory was part of the Obama administration’s final pitch on the deal before Congress leaves for its August recess. It followed a personal appeal from President Barack Obama to the House Democratic caucus at the White House on Wednesday evening.
Administration officials are increasingly finding themselves on the defensive against criticism from Republicans and some Democrats, as well as vehement opposition from Israel, according to three officials, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal political deliberations.
That battle will continue through the congressional recess next month. The administration is bracing for an all-out effort in lawmakers’ home districts by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobbying group, to press for rejection of the agreement. Aipac is also sponsoring trips to Israel next month for some members of Congress.
Lawmakers have until September to review the accord struck by the U.S. and five other world powers with Iran on July 14. If they pass a resolution of disapproval -- the likely outcome in the Republican-controlled House and Senate -- Obama can veto it. Administration officials are counting on having enough Democrats backing the president to sustain a veto, which would stand unless two-thirds of Congress voted to override it.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reiterated Thursday that she thinks any presidential veto of a disapproval measure of the deal will be sustained.
“Where does my confidence spring from?” Pelosi, a California Democrat, told reporters at the Capitol.
“First of all, from the quality of the agreement. Second of all, to the seriousness and thoughtfulness with which my colleagues have approached this,” she said. “And more and more of them have confirmed to me that they will be there to sustain the veto.”
Even as Pelosi expressed confidence the deal would survive congressional review, Representative Grace Meng of New York, a Democrat and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced her opposition Wednesday.
“I strongly believe the world could and should have a better deal,” Meng said in a statement.
Administration officials are trying to assure Congress that the administration is prepared to offer additional assistance to Israel and Persian Gulf states and to respond militarily to Iranian misbehavior.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday that the U.S. retains all its military options in dealing with Iran. He said those options would be “marginally better” with the deal in place because of the increased intelligence gained from international inspections of Iranian facilities.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz also have testified before congressional panels.
Deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters Wednesday the administration was “confident our argument’s going to prevail.” He cited recent statements from Dick Durbin of Illinois, the no. 2 Democrat in the Senate, and Representative Sandy Levin of Michigan, a veteran Jewish Democrat in the House, in support of the deal.
At the same time, Schultz refused to say he was certain that the administration had the votes it needs.
“I have other colleagues who are better gamblers than me, so I’m not going to do the odds business,” Schultz said.
Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a skeptic about the deal, has said opponents would have a tough time overriding an Obama veto. On Wednesday, some lawmakers said that assessment still stands.
“You think people are going to run out on the president?” Democratic Representative Jim McDermott of Washington said when asked whether Obama’s fellow Democrats would support him.
That’s because, “the bottom line question is what’s your alternative” to the agreement? Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Wednesday. “So far a lot of the critics don’t have anything remotely to offer.”
Connolly spoke as he headed to a meeting with members of Aipac who fanned out across Washington to lobby lawmakers.
“The proposed deal falls short of its intentions to eliminate every Iranian pathway to a nuclear weapon,” Aipac President Robert Cohen wrote in a July 28 letter to lawmakers. “We urge you to oppose the deal in order to keep the United States and our allies safer.”
In addition to their lobbying on Capitol Hill, AIPAC is organizing trips to Israel for a group of influential House Democrats over the August recess. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, is among the lawmakers making the trip, and his office says the itinerary includes a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the deal’s most ardent critics.
The White House is looking to counter those efforts by making the president, who has faced criticism over his relationship with Congress, available to lawmakers. On Wednesday afternoon, Obama laid out his argument for the Iran deal over a half-hour to House Democrats at the White House, according to an administration official.
When lawmakers were called back to the Capitol for votes before the president could field questions, Obama -- who had returned from a five-day swing through Africa earlier that morning -- invited the group to return later in the evening. About two dozen Democrats took the president up on that offer, traveling back to the White House for additional discussion just over an hour later.
Wednesday’s meeting was only the latest presidential outreach to wavering members of Congress. Influential lawmakers including Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have been spotted entering the White House for private meetings in recent days. Last week, Obama hosted a dozen House Democrats at the White House to discuss the deal. The administration has made more than 100 phone calls to lawmakers supplementing the briefings for Congress, according to an official who asked for anonymity to discuss the matter.
The president has also looked to build support by tapping some of his most reliable backers. Obama will join a conference call on the deal hosted by the Center for American Progress on Thursday, and discuss “its importance to the country and the international community,” according to an announcement sent to members of the administration-aligned policy group. Others invited to the call include MoveOn.org and Organizing for America.
The administration also is working to assuage the concerns of Shiite Iran’s Sunni rivals in the Gulf who, led by the Saudis, have questioned whether Iran can be trusted to honor the accord and how it may use its newfound clout and revenue in a region torn by sectarian conflicts. Many of the same concerns are being voiced by Israel.
Earlier this month, Obama met with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir. While the U.S. president doesn’t typically hold White House meetings with foreign officials who aren’t heads of state, he saw Al-Jubeir at the request of Saudi King Salman.
Carter was dispatched to Israel last week for meetings with officials including Netanyahu. Carter also traveled to Saudi Arabia.
The White House has attempted to put critics of the deal on defense. Obama has likened critics of the Iran agreement to backers of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.