Key Democrat to oppose Iran deal

Key Democrat to oppose Iran deal

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison Acting Defense chief calls Graham an 'ally' after tense exchange William Barr is right man for the times MORE on Tuesday announced his opposition to President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, becoming the second Senate Democrat to defy the White House on a top foreign policy priority.

“I have looked into my own soul and my devotion to principle may once again lead me to an unpopular course, but if Iran is to acquire a nuclear bomb, it will not have my name on it,” Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a speech Tuesday afternoon.

“It is for these reasons that I will vote to disapprove the agreement and, if called upon, would vote to override a veto,” Menendez said. 

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The decision, though expected, strikes another blow to the administration's efforts to rally support for the deal as Congress prepares to vote on it in September.

The president, although on vacation, has been reportedly calling members of Congress during the recess break.

The president’s push comes amid furious lobbying by pro- and anti-deal groups targeting undecided Democrats.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate's third-ranking Democrat, announced his opposition on Aug. 6.

Although Rhode Island Democratic Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, announced their support for the deal later Tuesday, Republicans are within striking distance of being able to vote it down in the Senate.

Republicans now only need four more Democratic defections to pass a measure disapproving of the deal in the upper chamber, though they would need several more to override Obama's expected veto of any such legislation.  

Menendez, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has been perhaps the most vocal critic of Iran among Senate Democrats, and a leading supporter of renewing sanctions on the nation, in case diplomacy failed.

In his lengthy speech, delivered at Seton Hall in New Jersey, Menendez said unlike some Republican colleagues that he was not "reflexively" opposing the president.

"In fact, I have supported President Obama, according to Congressional Quarterly, 98 percent of the time in 2013 and 2014," he said. "I have been a reliable supporter of President Obama."

He said the deal came down to lengthening the breakout time from three months to a year, during the duration of the agreement.

"So in reality we have purchased a very expensive alarm system," he said.

Breakout time is the amount of time Iran would need to collect enough nuclear material to build a bomb.

Menendez said the administration should return to the negotiating table and listed parameters that should be part of the deal.

Groups backing the deal bashed Menendez's announcement.

“Senator Menendez clearly wants the United States to go to war with Iran," Zack Malitz, campaign manager at CREDO Action, said in a statement.

“Senator Menendez may be adept at playing a war hawk, but he is a sorry excuse for a Democratic Senator," MoveOn.org Political Action Executive Director Ilya Sheyman said.

National Iranian American Council Executive Director Jamal Abdi said although Menendez voted against the Iraq War, his opposition to the deal "repeats the most fundamental mistake of George W. Bush."

Menendez said he regretted holding off on new sanctions legislation during the negotiations, under pressure from the administration, and seemed to criticize the administration. 

“Whether or not the supporters of the agreement admit it, this deal is based on ‘hope,'" he said. "Hope is part of human nature, but unfortunately it is not a national security strategy." 

Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which Menendez co-sponsored, Congress has 60 days to review the nuclear deal, and pass a resolution of approval, disapproval or take no action.

Republicans are planning to introduce a resolution of disapproval, aiming to kill the deal negotiated between six nations and Iran, which provides sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.

With Menendez’s support, Senate Republicans now have 56 of the 60 votes they’ll need for a filibuster-proof majority to pass the resolution.

However, the president has said he would veto such a resolution, which would force Republicans to gather two-thirds of lawmakers to override the veto.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested on Monday it could be a tough hill to climb for the deal's critics.

“I hope we can defeat it, but the procedure is obviously stacked in the president's favor,” he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “And we'll see."

So far, the administration has 23 of the 34 Democratic supporters it’ll need to sustain its veto, according to The Hill’s whip list. Twenty-three Senate Democrats are still undecided.

The odds of bipartisan support for the deal in the Senate got longer last week after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) announced his opposition.

This story was updated at 7:49 p.m.