Obama officials launch full-court press against Iran legislation

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The Obama administration has launched an aggressive sales pitch aimed at convincing Congress to hold its fire on Iran in the wake of a framework nuclear agreement.

President Obama, Vice President Biden, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, “and a whole host of other White House and senior administration officials” have been making calls to lawmakers, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Friday.

The administration wants lawmakers to suspend legislation related to Iran until after June 30, the deadline for negotiators to finalize a deal on Iran’s nuclear program.

{mosads}Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken made the media rounds Friday, telling CNN that the president wants “to move out aggressively” to work Congress and ensure lawmakers have “all the details” of the framework.  

“The president has instructed us to move out aggressively to work with Congress in the weeks ahead,” he said during an interview CNN. “To show them all of the details, to give them a chance to digest the details, and then to move forward with Congress.”

Though Obama has repeatedly threatened to veto any legislation that reaches his desk before the mid-year deadline, administration officials have also indicated they want to work with lawmakers to ensure they have input in the process.

Schultz said Blinken, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew are also taking part in the outreach campaign.

There are early signs following the framework deal that, while Democrats have concerns, they may be willing to give the administration breathing room.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, hailed the agreement for winning “huge” concessions from the Iranians on issues like the reduction of centrifuges, extended timelines for halting enrichment and the establishment of “a very robust, intrusive inspections regime.”

“A lot of critics are disingenuous,” Connolly told The Hill Friday. “There’s no honest attempt to analyze the agreement.”

Another member of the committee, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) predicted the progress evidenced by the framework agreement would curb the GOP’s appetite for ramming Iran legislation quickly through the lower chamber.

“I don’t see the House passing a statute in April,” he said.

Meanwhile, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the Iran deal and suggested that Senate Democrats should avoid rushing to support legislation that could hamper negotiations.

“Now is the time for thoughtful consideration, not rash action that could undermine the prospects for success,” he said Thursday in a statement. “In the coming days and weeks, we should all take a deep breath, examine the details and give this critically important process time to play out.”

And Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who has suggested that he wants to work with the White House to address concerns on legislation, said he looks forward “to reviewing all the details.”

But, the president still has plenty of lawmakers to convince. Highlighting the tough sell facing the administration, a number of senior House Democrats are voicing strong reservations that the framework simply doesn’t go far enough to ensure that Iran’s nuclear-weapons capabilities are eradicated.

Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), a member of leadership, Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the party’s top appropriator, and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s subpanel on the Middle East, are all expressing doubts that deal will meet its goals.

“Until the full details are provided to Congress on June 30th, you can keep me in the ‘highly skeptical’ column,” Israel said Thursday in a brief statement.

Rep. Alan Grayson, a liberal member of the House Foreign Affairs panel, is also dubious. Emphasizing that many details remain to be hammered out, the Florida Democrat said the framework falls short of the administration’s ultimate objective: to ensure the end of Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambitions in return for relinquished sanctions.

“From what I see, that deal is not this deal,” Grayson said Friday in a phone interview. “[It’s] a classic example of, let’s kick the can down the road.”

Resistance from Democrats would be a setback to the president, who has pushed hard against tough opposition for an Iranian deal he sees as, potentially, the crowning foreign-policy achievement of his second term.

Republican leaders are vowing to move quickly this month on legislation granting Congress a stronger hand in finalizing any deal, including proposals for tougher sanctions that Obama says will undercut diplomacy.

While Blinken said he had a “great conversation” with Sen. Bob Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, after the agreement was announced, the Tennessee Republican said the committee is still expected to vote later this month on his legislation allowing lawmakers to weigh in on a deal.

Senate hawks also remain highly skeptical of the negotiations. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a likely 2016 presidential candidate, said he is concerned Thursday’s announcement “will have devastating consequences for nuclear non-proliferation, the security of our allies and partners, and for U.S. interests in the region.”

But Republicans will need to win over some Democratic support in both chambers to pass their Iran bills with veto-proof majorities.

Sherman suggested recent Republican efforts to undermine the talks — including a controversial invitation to have Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address Congress last month and a Senate GOP letter to Iranian leaders bashing the deal — have politicized the issue in a way that will backfire on Republican leaders seeking Democratic votes.

“Do we pass sanctions the president doesn’t want over his veto?” Sherman said, referring to the question facing Democrats. “[That’s] less likely today than it was a couple days ago. … If it’s a political or personal issue, Democrats are not going to override a presidential veto.”

Among Sherman’s chief concerns is the fact that, while Iran foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has supported the European Union’s statement on the deal, he has yet to publicly endorse the more detailed four-page framework released by the administration.

“So I’ve got to worry, ‘Is this the agreement or is this the congressional pacification document?'” Sherman said by phone. “These four pages are much better than a lot of us were anticipating, although the one thing that’s missing are Zarif’s initials.”

Meanwhile, outside experts suggested the framework deal could help temper Democratic skepticism on Iran negotiations.

Larry Hanauer, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and former congressional staffer, said, “what will spark more Democratic unity [against sanctions legislation] will be a recognition that the framework advances U.S. interests.”

Tags Alan Grayson Ben Cardin Bob Corker Denis McDonough Gerry Connolly Harry Reid Jack Lew Marco Rubio

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