Mikulski pushes Obama's Iran nuke deal over the top in Senate

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Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara MikulskiEmphasis on diversity in Democratic convention lineup Senate confirms first black female librarian of Congress Clinton pens tribute to feminist website The Toast MORE said on Wednesday that she will support President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, all but ensuring the agreement will survive an attack in the Senate.

“No deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime," the Maryland Democrat, who is retiring after her current term, said in a statement. "I have concluded that this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb. For these reasons, I will vote in favor of this deal."

Mikulski's decision hands President Obama a needed foreign policy win after a months-long lobbying effort by administration officials to shore up support for the agreement.

"This strong support is a validation of the outreach that the president and his team have organized to make sure that every member of the Senate understands exactly what’s included in this agreement,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One. 

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Democrats have rallied around the deal since leaving town in August, giving Obama the 34 senators he needs to back the agreement and uphold a veto of a potential resolution of disapproval.

Mikulski was one of 11 remaining undecided Democrats. Opponents needed all 11 to buck Obama and vote against the deal if they were going to be able to block it in the Senate.

She said that while reviewing the deal she focused on a handful of questions, including whether it blocks Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, what sanctions would be lifted and if a better alternative could be reached if Congress rejects the deal.

Republicans have argued that the Obama administration could force Iran back to the negotiating table, but Mikulski said on Wednesday that the two alternatives to the deal were either more sanctions against Iran or military action.

"Maintaining or stepping up sanctions will only work if the sanction coalition holds together. It’s unclear if the European Union, Russia, China, India and others would continue sanctions if Congress rejects this deal. At best, sanctions would be porous, or limited to unilateral sanctions by the U.S.," she said, adding that the "military option is always on the table for the United States."

Mikulski's announcement quickly drew pushback from Republicans. 

Cory Fritz, the press secretary for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that “the White House may have convinced just enough Democrats to back an agreement that legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program, trusts the regime to self-inspect and offers amnesty to terrorists, but this deal is far from being implemented.”

Earnest said the White House would continue its outreach to lawmakers with the hopes of picking up additional votes.

Mikulski, as well as undecided Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), have been under intense pressure from opponents of the deal and pro-Israel advocates to reject the Iran nuclear agreement.

She tried to preempt some of their criticism on Wednesday, touting her support for Israel and noting that she considered how the deal would affect the country.

“I have been an unabashed and unwavering supporter of Israel. I have persistently supported the sanctions that brought Iran to the table," she said. "With the horrors of the Holocaust in mind, I have been deeply committed to the need for a Jewish homeland, the State of Israel, and its inherent ability to defend itself."

Mikulski added that in the wake of the Iran deal, the United States must "reaffirm our commitment to the safety and security of Israel.”

Outside groups supporting the deal quickly used Mikulski's announcement to pressure the 10 Democrats who are still on the fence, urging them to block the resolution from getting the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate.

With Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) saying they will vote against the deal, opponents need four more Democrats to send the resolution to Obama, forcing a veto.

Jim Dean, who chairs Democracy for America, said with the deal "we'll be doubling down on our campaign to ensure Congressional leaders hear from the majority of Americans who support the Iran deal and working to deny Republicans the 60 votes they need."

Meanwhile, Susan Shaer, the co-chair of the Win Without War coalition which includes nearly 40 outside groups, said that if the "remaining Democrats vote to oppose this deal, they will send a harmful message to our allies and to the world that America cannot be trusted.”

Schumer, expected to be the next Democratic leader, has drawn swift blowback from liberals and progressive groups for his decision to oppose the deal.

Becky Bond, the political director for CREDO Action, said with the Iran deal expected to survive Congress "the Democratic Party and the grassroots need to confront party stalwarts like Sen. Chuck Schumer who were wrong on Iraq and then tried to lead the nation once again into war with Iran." 

This story was updated at 3:05 p.m.