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Obama Counting on Pelosi to Defend Iran Deal

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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With the deal over Iran's nuclear program announced, the White House will turn its attention to selling it to Congress -- and it will be depending on one lawmaker to save President Barack Obama's foreign-policy legacy: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. 

While the former House speaker has yet to publicly support any Iran deal, her behind-the-scenes campaign to whip votes to protect it has already begun. She has urged her Democratic colleagues to back the president. She has hosted informal meetings with experts who support the negotiations to educate her caucus. She even helped gather lawmakers' signatures for a May 7 letter to Obama expressing support for diplomacy with Iran, though reserving judgment on a final deal.

Now Pelosi is expected to be the firewall the White House will need to prevent a two-thirds, veto-proof majority in the House from disapproving of the final Iran deal, staving off political humiliation for the lame-duck president.

The administration also has its eye on House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, who leads a group of centrist Democrats that will be crucial to upholding the deal. Hoyer has been seen as more critical of the negotiations; he has signed four letters critical of Iran since 2014 backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Pelosi signed none of them.

House staff members tell us that Pelosi has quietly sought to convince her colleagues of the wisdom of an Iran deal through informal meetings. One, on June 3, included experts from the Iran Project, a group of former diplomats that have met with their Iranian counterparts for more than a decade.

"Pelosi is the most important player on this in many ways," Joel Rubin, who until this week was the deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, told us. Rubin, now president of the Washington Strategy Group, a consulting firm, added, "The conventional wisdom is that a presidential veto will be sustained, but where a number of Senate Democrats are remains unclear."

After the White House submits the deal to Congress, lawmakers will have 60 days to review its contents, annexes and any secret codicils. The Republican leadership in both chambers will then decide whether to hold a vote to approve or to disapprove of the deal. With almost all Republicans expected to oppose it, the real fight will be among the Democrats.

If Congress passes a resolution of disapproval, the president is expected to issue a veto, after which both the Senate and the House would need two-thirds to override it. In the Senate, that vote could go either way. Many Senate Democrats have been quiet about the deal. They are caught between a desire to support their party's leader and a genuine concern about how the world will know if Iran is cheating and what Iran will do with the cash it's expected to receive when sanctions are lifted. As few as 13 Democrats would be needed to override the president, assuming the Republicans hold ranks. In the House, Pelosi would need to muster 145 votes to sustain a veto. Her success in doing so could mean life or death for the Obama administration's biggest foreign-policy achievement.

The administration has been briefing lawmakers throughout the negotiations, but many of the issues that emerged late in the game are the ones that centrist Democrats are worried about. These include the potential lifting of the U.N. arms embargo against Iran, the access inspectors would have to Iran's military facilities, and a full accounting of Iran's past illicit nuclear activity. "Confidence on the verification provisions is crucial to avoiding problems with Senate Democrats," Rubin told us.

Top Democrats including Chuck Schumer, the likely next minority leader, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Ben Cardin have refused to commit either way. Schumer was one of seven Democrats who voted for an Iran sanctions bill in January, against the administration's wishes. Both Schumer and Cardin signed a letter in March giving the administration more time to finish a deal before sanctions would move forward.

"First, we need to read the agreement. The devil is in the details," Cardin said Monday on CNN. "We still don't know exactly about the inspection regimes. That's going to be a very important part for many members of Congress." Cardin noted that the Congress now has 60 days to consider the deal, because the administration missed its July 9 deadline, before which Congress would only have had 30 days. He also acknowledged that if Congress can't or won't override the expected veto, the deal will move forward unimpeded.

Not surprisingly, pro-Israel groups have started targeting on-the-fence Democrats such as Schumer. Pelosi's expected role in whipping her caucus to support the Iran deal will place her in direct conflict with Aipac, the largest foreign-policy lobby in Washington, which has been preparing its own campaign to oppose any nuclear pact.

Morris Amitay, a former director of Aipac, told us that considering the extremely liberal district she represents, Pelosi has been "friendly" about issues relating to Israel's security. "But I understand she will not buck the party line on the Iran deal, even though it's an existential threat to Israel," he told us. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net