© Greg Nash
Democratic lawmakers are holding back their support for President Obama’s controversial nuclear deal with Iran, knowing the political dynamic surrounding it could change dramatically in the coming months.
Political firestorms tend to erupt during the long, hot days of August, when lawmakers meet face-to-face with constituents in town-hall meetings that can quickly grow contentious.
Pro-Israel and other political advocacy groups know this and plan to spend tens of millions of dollars over the next two months to build a firestorm of opposition to the deal they believe preserves Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon.
A few Democrats, such as Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinThis week: Congress returns to government shutdown fight Hotel industry details plans to fight Airbnb Congress needs a do-over on fraud-laden 'Immigrant Investor' program MORE (D-Calif.), have already said they’ll vote for the deal when it comes to the Senate floor in September, but others are reserving judgment, knowing the politics of the issue could change dramatically.
“I want to first sit in my little chair in my house, take the agreement, the codicils, the annexes and read them and ponder them and study them. Then I intend to start talking to people and experts, but the first step is to do that,” said Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerGOP fundraiser enters crowded primary for Pa. Senate seat Dems: Trump risks government shutdown over border wall Miners' union shouldn't look to feds to bail out mismanaged pension fund MORE (D-N.Y.), a pivotal swing vote.
Twenty-eight Senate Democrats have not made clear their decisions, according to a whip list complied by The Hill. Five Democrats have announced their support and 13 are leaning yes.
A senior Democratic aide said memories of recent August recesses turned bad still sting.
“There was ObamaCare in 2009 and the border surge in 2014,” the aide said.
Democrats were stunned by the intensity of anger and opposition in response to healthcare negotiations leading up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act when they returned to their home states in August of 2009.
The issue of border security exploded into a political crisis last August when a surge of unaccompanied minors from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador dominated the news for weeks.
“I have two fears right now: the sixty-day window, which gives opponents plenty of time to crank up their opposition, and the issue of the lifting of the Iran arms embargo,” said Jim Manley, a strategist and former senior aide to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“As someone who had a front-row seat in 2009 when I saw how quickly the Tea Party activists managed to turn debate on ObamaCare on its head, I’m very concerned about something similar happening this time around,” he added.
Pro-Israel groups led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) plan to spend millions of dollars on a nationwide lobbying campaign.
Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, a new group backed by AIPAC, launched a multi-million-dollar nationwide campaign Friday to oppose the nuclear deal.
“We think Democrats should be concerned because the deal increases the chances of war, will spur a nuclear arms race and rewards an Iran with a horrific human rights record,” spokesman Patrick Dorton told The Hill.
Opponents will argue the deal does not achieve “anytime, anywhere” inspection, fails to specify to what extent Iran must disclose past work on nuclear weapons and allows it to continue developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The battle for influence will focus on a group of about 15 Senate Democrats whom Republicans need to reach the 67-vote threshold to override a veto of a disapproval resolution.
“How’s the verification going to work? How can we be assured that Iran sticks to what they’ve agreed to? How are the sanctions going to snap back into place if they don’t?” asked Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
Senior congressional aides say there are enough votes this month to sustain President Obama’s expected veto of a resolution overturning the deal, but warn the environment could change over the next two months.
“The fact that there’s a vote in September makes me worry. If the votes were held now, we’d be fine,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide told The Hill on Tuesday.
Democrats, however, say they are more prepared for the lobbying assault than they were six years ago when the vitriolic backlash against ObamaCare caught them flatfooted.
“I think that the opponents are motivated and well-funded and have a lot of passionate supporters to do grassroots type of lobbying. I think supporters of the deal are expecting that and prepared unlike ObamaCare summer, which took a lot of people by surprise,” said a Senate Democratic aide.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold its first hearing on the accord July 23, when Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew are scheduled to testify.
Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), the senior Democrat on the panel, expects it to hold at least three public hearings over the next three weeks before the recess.
The administration has deployed an intense lobbying campaign led by Vice President Joe Biden in hopes of locking down votes before lawmakers leave town.
“I’m sure the administration is going to be applying pressure for people to support it early to build political momentum,” said another Senate Democratic aide.