No coattails.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Congressional Fight on Iran Deal Is All But Over

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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Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal in Congress admit they can no longer kill the accord. Their focus now is making sure there will be a vote on the agreement at all, and salvaging some political benefit from their well-funded bid to stop it.

Lawmakers, Congressional staffers and lobbyists opposed to the deal reached in Vienna last month tell us they are now fighting to get more than 60 votes in the Senate for a resolution of disapproval to avoid a filibuster by Democrats supporting President Barack Obama. That is a far cry from the 67 votes in the Senate needed, along with two thirds of the House, to overturn an expected presidential veto of that resolution.

Yes, overturning an Obama veto was always a longshot. House Speaker John Boehner in April was privately warning Republicans that his party didn't have the votes to stop the deal. Now Republican leaders are saying this out in the open.

Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday it was “very unlikely” there would be 67 votes against the deal in the Senate, but there would be a “bipartisan majority” voting to disapprove of the deal. As of now, only two Senate Democrats and 14 House Democrats have come out against the pact.  (The Republicans hold 54 seats in the Senate.)

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is threatening to filibuster the bill altogether, and unless at least four more Democrats promise to vote against the deal, Reid may succeed. Critics of the deal are outraged at the idea that Congress’s only chance at oversight of the initiative might not even get a hearing on the Senate floor. The White House is also reportedly pushing for the deal to be filibustered, so that Obama won’t have to veto a resolution disapproving the signature foreign policy accomplishment of his presidency. Such talk has prompted Congressional Republicans to consider moving the legislation first in the House, where passage is assured.

Looking farther ahead, deal opponents are trying to salvage political gains from their pending legislative defeat. Republicans are using the issue to batter their Democratic opponents for 2016 in ads, and the nuclear deal has already become a factor in Senate races in Ohio and Pennsylvania, both swing states in presidential elections.

Most of the Republican presidential candidates have made their opposition to the Iran deal a key plank in their foreign policy platforms. Republicans in Congress are preparing several new Iran sanctions bills for the fall, none of which is likely to become law, in an attempt to keep the issue alive politically amid increasingly bad poll numbers for the deal.

Indeed, from a political angle, not all those who oppose the nuclear deal believe that a filibuster of the Senate disapproval resolution is a bad thing. Some feel that the White House is miscalculating, and that shutting down the process for a Congressional vote would only weaken the deal further.

“I’m hoping Democrats filibuster the vote. As an opponent of the deal who seeks to delegitimize this deal, nothing could be better,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

The administration was always going to be able to implement the nuclear agreement even if Congress did initially vote against it, this argument goes, and if Congressional oversight is stifled, that will only bolster the ability of the next president to scuttle the deal, or at least tighten its enforcement and punish Iran’s other illicit activities.

Dubowitz claimed the drive to delegitimize the deal has succeeded, even if it failed to stop its implementation: “On policy, deal opponents won. On politics, deal supporters won."

Nonetheless, many Republicans now acknowledge in private that they were handed both a political and a policy defeat on the nuclear deal. Since Congress left town for its August recess, momentum has largely been with the White House. Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and staunch Israel supporter, came out earlier than expected against the nuclear deal on August 6. But his opposition did not have coattails, even in his own state. The same week that Schumer announced he would vote to disapprove the deal, the junior senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, announced her support for it.

A week after Schumer's announcement, Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, announced that he, too, supported the nuclear deal -- even though his state was bombarded with television ads against the Iran accord and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had considered him a possible yes vote on the resolution of disapproval. The only other Democrat who has come out against the deal since Schumer's announcement is Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who was forced to give up his seat as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this spring after being indicted by the Justice Department on corruption charges. Menendez, a fierce critic of Iran, was always expected to oppose the deal.

The pro-deal side of the fight has been willing to threaten the political futures of Democrats who oppose the president, while opponents of the deal have not. One pro-Israel lobbyist told us that the community of donors, fund-raisers and activists opposing the nuclear accord have yet to decide whether they will support primary opponents of the Democrats who vote with the president. Contrast this to the White House, which suggested earlier this month that Democrats may want to support an alternative leader in the Senate to Schumer, who was the consensus candidate to replace Harry Reid when he retires next year.

In the Senate, there is now only a handful of Democrats who have yet to say how they will vote on the resolution of disapproval, assuming it actually comes to a vote. With the announcement Thursday by Tom Carper of Delaware that he will support the deal, 30 Democrats have said they will back the president. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jeff Merkley of Oregon have yet to say how they will vote, but all are eventually expected to come out in favor of the Iran deal.

According to one whip count from a prominent Republican Senate office, there are now only 12 truly undecided votes among the Senate Democrats. Among those, opponents of the deal have focused their efforts on eight of them, according to one lobbyist: Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Warner of Virginia and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Each undecided Democrat will have to weigh the risk of voter disapproval for supporting the deal against the intra-party pressure to back the president and the position of their presumptive presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. The White House will win enough Democrats to stave off a Congressional rejection of the Iran deal. The fight now is over whether the president can stop that resolution from even coming to a vote.

(Updates with Carper decision to support Iran deal in 15th paragraph.)

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