Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal have all but accepted they cannot block the accord, as a growing number of congressional Democrats signal they'll supply the votes to sustain President Barack Obama's veto of a planned resolution of disapproval.
The question now is whether the resolution will even make it to Obama's desk. While passage by the Republican-controlled House is certain, Democrats in the Senate are planning to stop a resolution by using the filibuster to require a 60-vote super-majority to send it to the president. Republicans have 54 members in the Senate. Just two Senate Democrats have declared against the deal—New York's Chuck Schumer and New Jersey's Bob Menendez.
That means Republicans need four more Democratic defectors to secure the 60 votes needed to ensure passage of the disapproval resolution.
It's unclear they will get there. Already, 31 Senate Democratic caucus have declared themselves in favor of the Iran nuclear deal. Two more are leaning in favor — West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal. If Obama can get to 41, his party will be able to spare him the political embarrassment of having to use the veto to enact an historic international deal over Congress' disapproval. It takes just one more than one-third of the votes in either chamber of Congress to sustain a presidential veto, and it's no longer in doubt that supporters of the Iran deal can do that.
Faced with the prospect of seeing the disapproval resolution blocked in the Senate, those who support it are now making the argument that Democrats will pay a political price if they filibuster, essentially daring them to do so.
"I'm hoping Democrats filibuster the vote. As an opponent of the deal who seeks to delegitimize this deal, nothing could be better," Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Bloomberg View's Josh Rogin and Eli Lake. Allen Roth, who runs Secure America Now, a hawkish group that adamantly opposes the deal, told The Hill that a filibuster would be akin to "handing a political gift to the Republicans." He argued that "Democrats will be setting themselves up for a further political hit if they deny the people the opportunity—the people meaning members of Congress—to vote on it."
It may seem like a clever argument. But it's not how filibuster politics work.
"That's laughable. It's the ultimate spin," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "As we learned when Republicans filibustered not just issues of great consequence but everything under the sun, they paid no price for it."
Senators get away with filibusters because ordinary Americans pay no attention to the minutiae of Senate procedure. The power of the 60-vote threshold to subvert the will of a majority of elected representatives has long been under-appreciated, and the upcoming Iran vote serves as a reminder of the perverse politics of the blocking tool.
"Nobody pays attention, except a few of us nerds, to Senate procedure. The headlines are going to be 'Motion To Disapprove of Iran Deal Fails in Senate.' It obfuscates issues and most Americans don't pay attention to much of anything about politics. Getting into the very thin weeds of what a filibuster is is not going to happen," Ornstein said.
The same Democrats who were outraged about repeated Republican filibusters for years under Obama are now using it routinely to prevent the now-Republican-led Congress from landing legislation on Obama's desk that would defund Planned Parenthood and reverse his immigration policies, among other things. And the same Republican senators who used the filibuster to great effect in the minority are now upset it's being used against them.
"I find that stunning that the leader, the Democratic leader, is proposing that," Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the Associated Press, fretting that a Democratic filibuster would be "confusing to the people they represent."
Far more damaging to the deal would be if Congress passes a resolution and Obama vetoes it. It would inflict more political pain on the president by sending a signal that one of his signature foreign policy initiatives lacks the support of the country's elected representatives.
"It's more damaging politically if the deal gets disapproved by Congress and only survives because a third of the members of one house agree with Obama," Ornstein said. "If you oppose this and you really want to damage Obama you don't want to have this effort of yours die quietly because of a filibuster."