New York, California Dems square off over Iran

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Democrats are badly split on geographic and political lines over whether to support or oppose a bill allowing Congress to review and possibly vote on a nuclear deal with Iran.

The debate is pitting New York Democrats worried about losing Jewish donors to Republicans against California Democrats determined to back President Obama.

Jewish Democrats such as New York Sen. Charles Schumer and New York Reps. Eliot Engel and Steve Israel worry that if the deal backfires their party could pay the price in future elections.

{mosads}They are more reflexively concerned about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticism of the nuclear talks, memorably delivered to Congress in blunt terms last month.

California Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is Jewish, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, however, have pointedly criticized Netanyahu. They have backed the White House and oppose legislation that would require Obama to wait sixty days before waiving sanctions.

The 60 days is intended to give Congress time to review a final deal, and could lead to a vote of disapproval. The White House warns it could kill the talks, which are set to continue through the end of June.

Jewish Democratic donors on the East Coast warn the emerging nuclear deal will cost their party and say if Democratic lawmakers oppose legislation to give Congress oversight the reverberations will be worse.

“There are Democrats that would reconsider their support or their level of support next year. The combination of [the deal] and this almost blatant animosity between the president and the prime minister just exacerbates things,” said Alan Kessler, a Democratic fundraiser based in Philadelphia.

“I’ve heard from Democratic activist fundraisers who are not happy and you wonder about the effect on Jewish voters,” he said.  “There’s a concern this will have an effect on 2016 elections.”

Schumer is a co-sponsor of the review legislation along with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

On Monday he said, “Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement.”

Other New York Democrats have backed him.

Engel, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs panel, told MSNBC, “Congress has to play a role.”

“This is very, very important and I think Congress has to decide. In some form, Congress has to assent to it or dissent,” he said.

Israel, a former chair of the House Democrats’ fundraising arm, said, “the details deserve and must get a vote by the U.S. Congress.”

Outside groups are urging Schumer and his allies to stick to their message.

“If the president continues with what is widely regarded at least in the Jewish community as a disastrous course with Iran and if Iran goes nuclear in 2018 and everyone remembers what the president did to pave the Iranians’ path to a bomb, then yes it’s going to cost them votes,” said Omri Ceren, the press director at The Israel Project, an organization that works with journalists on Middle East issues.

Jewish fundraisers and activists in California, however, are more sanguine about the emerging deal.

“The folks I’ve talked to are mostly cautiously optimistic that whatever agreement is reached will be helpful and not hurtful,” said David Wolf, a Democratic fundraiser based in Long Beach.

“They may not be excited about it but I don’t think they’re fearful or angry about it,” he said. “Most people are more focused on social issues and the economy and they think let’s wait and see how this turns out before judging it.”

Democratic leaders in California have expressed their displeasure with what they see as Netanyahu’s attempts to undercut negotiations with Iran.

“I wish that he would contain himself, because he has put out no real alternative, in his speech to the Congress, no real alternative,” Feinstein told CNN in an interview.

She says she would vote against Corker-Menendez as currently drafted, a position that could give Democrats in the House some cover to also vote against it.

“People in the Jewish community really look to Sen. Feinstein as a leader. The fact that she doesn’t favor congressional review does influence people,” said Wolf.  

Pelosi blasted Netanyahu’s speech, which some Democrats boycotted, as “insulting to the intelligence of the United States” and said Corker’s bill “undermines these international negotiations and represents an unnecessary hurdle to achieving a strong, final agreement.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, another leading Jewish Democrat from California, has called for delaying the Foreign Relations panel’s markup of Corker-Menendez. She has proposed alternative legislation that would simply require the administration to report every 90 days whether Iran is complying with the deal. It would scrap the 60-day review period during which Obama would be barred from waiving sanctions.

The possibility of a congressional review period has emerged as a major sticking point because Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said a final deal must lift economic sanctions immediately.

Some California Democrats see the Corker bill as a partisan effort to drive a wedge between their party and Jewish donors and activists because Republicans know that Obama cannot accept it given the Iranian terms.

“The Republicans are definitely playing it for politics. They’re using the issue to hurt Obama. They’re using it to court Jewish donors and they’re using it court the Jewish vote,” said a Democratic aide.  

Amidst the contentious debate, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has waged an intense lobbying campaign.

“The phones have been busy. There’s an intense flurry of lobbying on both sides. AIPAC is so aggressive and organized and they have home-state members reaching out to our office,” said the aide to an East Coast Democratic senator.

“The White House has been busy calling too,” the aide added, referring to pushback from the administration intended to kill the Corker bill.


Tags Barack Obama Barbara Boxer Benjamin Netanyahu Bob Corker Chuck Schumer Dianne Feinstein Iran Israel Nancy Pelosi nuclear talks Steve Israel

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