The administration seeks to tamp down expectations, but the numbers of supportive Senate Democrats are adding up.
By Edward-Isaac Dovere and Burgess Everett
President Barack Obama’s almost certain to get the Iran nuclear deal — but whether he gets there by filibuster or sustained veto could make all the difference.
A Democratic filibuster in the Senate would be a clear victory for the president, allowing Obama to say that for all the political noise there wasn’t enough actual opposition to the nuclear agreement with the Islamic republic to even get to a final vote.
Having to save the deal with a veto (just the fifth of his presidency) and relying on liberals in the House and Senate to sustain it would be much more trouble: a procedural pull across the finish line that sows more doubts in a public already skeptical of the deal, leaves international partners worried about America’s long-term commitment and adds weeks of added time and tangles.
The White House very much prefers option A. And even before he came out publicly for the deal on Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had been in frequent contact with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to try to make that happen.
The numbers are tight: They’ll need 12 of the remaining 15 undecided Senate Democrats to go Obama’s way, along with the 29 already there.
Obama, White House aides and Senate minority whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — who’s been running the unofficial Iran vote-counting operation — have been scrambling to lock down the remaining votes to get 41 Democrats to stick with the president.
“Those who are students of the process know that the president has the last word,” Durbin said. “I’d like to win it earlier.”
Obama faces a huge pile-up of trouble if he has to veto the bill, and they know it in the West Wing. Already facing major public skepticism about the deal, this could brew more doubt. The other governments involved have expressed their own wariness, concerned that a deal preserved only by a sustained veto might represent a lack of long-term American commitment.
“There’s a cost to the international credibility of the country and this president if a motion of disapproval passes the House and the Senate,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who’s working with Durbin. “There is some harm to the country’s standing if we have to go through the charade of the veto.”
Both the West Wing and Durbin’s team are trying to avoid setting premature confidence.
The White House is trying not to set expectations high by openly seeking a filibuster. Right now, the president looks strong as it becomes nearly mathematically impossible for GOP leaders to build a veto-proof majority in either the House or Senate.
“The president’s only concern here is that Congress doesn’t take this off the rails,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
Opponents of the deal say forcing the president to veto the measure would send a message to Iran that enough members of Congress are ready to impose new sanctions on Tehran if it fails to follow the accord.
Forcing the president to pull out his veto pen is “important as a statement to Iran, and may make it more likely that Iran keep the promises about what it will not do,” said former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of United Against Nuclear Iran and with his hand in two other opposition groups, though he refused to concede that Obama would be safe from an override vote.
Lieberman, once a Senate Democrat himself, has been helping direct millions of dollars in opposition ads to swing Democrats’ home states and lobbying former colleagues hoping to seize some momentum against the deal.
But his former leader’s iron grip on the Democratic caucus threatens to upstage work by the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party and opposition to the deal from Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
When Reid talks to Senate Democrats, he’s being very explicit.
“He’s not: ‘This is a vote of conscience,’” a person close to Reid explained. “He’s, ‘Vote no against a resolution of disapproval.’”
Of the Democrats left undecided, the White House is most concerned with “no” votes from Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Losing either one would be an embarrassment for the White House: Cardin is not only the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, he’s also a Jewish Democrat and a senator who helped Obama work out the legislation that the Senate could now use to spike him. Booker has for years put himself forward as a friend and strong ally of Obama, but he’s under pressure from his constituents to align with Menendez and Schumer, so far the only two against.
Pro-deal Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have focused on Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who are both seen as more promising potential yeses.
But timing is also a factor. Opponents like Lieberman say the Iran debate isn’t “static,” changing daily as Iranian leaders utter bellicose rhetoric and new revelations about secret deals with international inspectors roll out. The longer the debate goes on and the more negative polls that come out, the better for opponents, they reason.
With the United Nations General Assembly meeting set for after the initial vote, the White House would much rather have Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu come to New York to rail against an Iran deal that’s already on the books, versus Netanyahu rolling up to a U.N. podium to call on lawmakers to overturn an Obama veto as one last chance to stop the deal.
“If there is a filibuster, this process will be over by then and this visit can be used as an opportunity to start to repair the damage with Israel,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “But if we are still in the middle of a veto fight it will further exacerbate tensions with the Israelis.”
A veto fight would also run up against other issues that the White House wants to spend September on. The White House has learned from bitter experience that Obama rarely comes off well the more he gets entangled with Congress, and raw feelings from a veto fight won’t help as they try to avoid another shutdown over the budget and Planned Parenthood funding.
“Everyone was conditioned that he was going to veto this, so the fact that we’re having a conversation about a filibuster shows how far we’ve come,” said a White House aide familiar with the internal deliberations.
Expected legions of constituents didn’t materialize at town halls over the August recess. Anti-Iran-deal spending fell flat, moving almost no one. Moderate Democrats like Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana backed the deal, and Durbin didn’t get any bad surprises.
The administration has been pushing hard on wavering Democrats to run up the vote in September, from calls that the president is making directly to senators to State Department officials promising a group of senior Hill communications staffers in a meeting before the August recess that they’ll make Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Secretary of State John Kerry available to local news outlets to provide air cover, according to two sources on Capitol Hill.
A senior administration official confirmed that Moniz and Kerry did a small roundtable with more than 30 reporters earlier this summer, evidence that “our senior officials are willing to talk to any reporter in any media market in the country to defend this deal.” On Wednesday, Obama spoke to local TV reporters from markets including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., targeting on-the-fence senators like Coons, Cardin, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Mark Warner of Virginia.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) spoke to two undecided Democrats on Tuesday about the deal. He said he doesn’t believe he should put his thumb on the scale to counter the White House, but when he saw Reid say that he is trying to build a filibuster, his response was: “Are you kidding me?”
“Is that where they really want to be? Do they really want to vote to block consideration of … probably the biggest foreign policy endeavor?” Corker said in an interview. “Do they want to be in a place where they voted to keep from going to the substance [of the Iran debate]?”
(Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.)