WASHINGTON — Determined to secure support for the Iran nuclear deal, President Barack Obama is making inroads with a tough constituency – his fellow Democrats in Congress.
A handful of key Democrats stepped forward to support the accord within hours of Obama’s personal lobbying at the White House this past week, part of the administration’s all-out campaign since the pact was announced July 14. Other Democrats have signaled they are leaning in favor and still others have remained undeclared, awaiting a vote in September.
The deal, which curbs Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions smothering its economy, is not a traditional fight between the White House and Republicans, who control the House and Senate. This is about Obama, who has often been at odds with congressional Democrats, trying to cajole them just weeks after a divisive debate over trade.
The president has talked to more than 80 lawmakers, either individually or in small groups, administration officials said. Obama, who delivers a speech on the deal on Wednesday at American University, also hosted a reception for about 100 House Democrats at the White House.
Vice President Joe Biden has traveled to the Capitol and invited lawmakers for breakfast at the Naval Observatory. Cabinet and other administration officials have spoken with more than 175 lawmakers. A member of the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to brief lawmakers next week.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s recent exchange with Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 3 Democratic leader in the House, shows the extent of the administration’s bend-over-backward persuasion campaign. “I’m briefing later,” Moniz told Hoyer in a hallway. “Are you coming? And if there’s anything you want to know more personally, give me a call. I can expand.”
Lawmakers can vote to approve, disapprove or take no action on the deal. Obama says he’ll veto a congressional disapproval and would need 34 members of the Senate or 146 members of the House to stand with him so Congress can’t override his veto.
“In the real world, this is a deal that gets the job done,” Obama said in a conference call with supporters.
Several Democrats said Obama’s detailed understanding of the accord won their respect.
Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, who announced his support for the pact, said Obama knows as much about the deal as the negotiators. Kildee’s support was a victory for Obama because one of his constituents, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, is among four Americans held or missing in Iran. Republicans have argued that the release of the four should have been a part of any final deal.
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva said the administration’s robust selling of the deal strengthens the Democratic stance on Capitol Hill. “We don’t need to be an island right now,” said Grijalva, who has pledged to support it.
At one meeting at the White House, New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler said Obama acknowledged that the deal was not perfect and that Iran would still have an “odious” government.
“He makes an impressive case, but there are still questions I have,” said Nadler, a Jewish representative who has met one-on-one with the president.
The lengthy August recess will be a test, with multimillion-dollar ad campaigns and heavy lobbying by both sides, including the pro-Israel lobby, American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Some members of Congress are going on trips to Israel, with some arranged by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC, a deal foe.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he thinks most senators have an idea of how they’ll vote. “Probably everybody has a lean already,” he said, adding that he still is undecided and has lingering questions.
Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Xavier Becerra of California said he’s still talking to people on both sides of the issue. “I’m in no rush to make a decision because there’s no rush to cast a vote,” Becerra said.
Two House Democrats – New York’s Grace Meng and New Jersey’s Albio Sires – announced their opposition. Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, also a Democrat, backed it. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says Democrats would sustain a veto.
Democrats who are Jewish or represent districts with large Jewish populations are being heavily lobbied. Iran has threatened to destroy Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the agreement.
Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, a prominent Jewish Democrat, backed the deal. New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell, who is undecided but leaning toward approving the deal, said a former Israeli general who used to lead Israel’s Labor Party visited his office and surprisingly urged him to vote yes.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who is leaning in favor of the deal, said, “There’s nobody that I know of in this whole Congress that’s basically not going to support Israel,” Manchin said. “But that being said, what pathway do we have?”
This past week, lawmakers said Obama gave a passionate defense of the deal, which he believes would be a gilded foreign policy peg in his presidential legacy. Congressional votes interrupted the meeting, but some 20 lawmakers took Obama up on his offer to return to the White House after the vote to ask questions for some two hours.
After the 60-day review, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said it was going to be a very important vote “to get right, even if it causes you political pain.”