WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is treating his drive to win congressional approval for his nuclear deal with Iran like a political campaign, making attacks on opponents that need to stop, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday.
McConnell’s comments came as the Senate left town for a summer recess that both sides in the dispute plan to use to try lining up support for showdown votes next month. The remarks also followed a tumultuous early debate over the nuclear agreement in which Republican opponents of the agreement have used strong language to criticize Obama.
Obama so far “is treating this like a political campaign,” McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters. “Demonize your opponents, gin up the base, get Democrats all angry and, you know, rally around the president. To me, it’s a different kind of issue.”
The majority leader has said he wants senators to spend next month’s debate over the Iran deal planted in their seats — an unusual step underscoring the issue’s gravity.
McConnell also said that:
—Congress will pass no major immigration overhaul through next year, which he blamed on anger over Obama’s efforts to unilaterally ease restrictions;
—He will not allow fights this fall over spending and cutting federal money for Planned Parenthood to lead to a government shutdown;
—Pope Francis’ first-ever papal address to Congress on Sept. 24 has sparked the most requests for invitations he’s aware of for any speech to Congress.
Lawmakers are required to vote on whether to accept the Iran agreement by Sept. 17. Opposition is overwhelming from Republicans arguing that the U.S. gave away too much in negotiations and from many Democrats sympathetic to Israel, which considers the pact a disaster.
It’s nearly certain that the GOP-controlled Congress will reject the deal, and that Obama will veto that bill. That means the suspense is over whether Obama can corral enough Democratic support to sustain his veto and keep the agreement alive.
“It’s those hard-liners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal,” Obama said of Tehran demonstrators in a speech Wednesday defending the multi-nation agreement. “They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”
McConnell pointedly objected to those remarks, saying, “The president ought to treat this like a serious national security debate rather than a political campaign and tone down the rhetoric and talk about the facts.”
Yet in recent weeks, some Republicans have pulled no punches to criticize Obama over the agreement, which would lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran mothballing its ambitions to build a nuclear weapon for at least a decade.
Presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the pact would make the Obama administration “the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism” because lifting the sanctions would restore money to Iran that it could use to support terrorist groups it sponsors.
Another GOP presidential contender, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, said Obama is marching Jews “to the door of the oven” — a reference to both the Holocaust and Israel’s strong opposition to the agreement.
On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of Obama, “He’s carrying on in the finest traditions of Neville Chamberlain,” the British prime minister best known for unsuccessfully trying to appease Germany’s Adolf Hitler before World War II.
As the White House continued trying to win votes for the deal, three more House Democrats announced support for the agreement: Reps. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, Joe Courtney of Connecticut and Donald Payne Jr. of New Jersey.
So did two additional Democratic senators: Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Sen. Chuck Schumer, Gillibrand’s New York colleague and likely future Senate Democratic leader, has yet to declare his position.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said he’d discussed the deal with Obama at the White House Wednesday night. Cardin, who has not said whether he will support the agreement, said he is considering “whether it will put us on a path to make it less likely or more likely that Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state.”
When Congress returns after Labor Day, lawmakers will face a fall packed with do-or-die deadlines, including a September abbreviated by the Jewish holidays to just 10 days when both chambers are simultaneously in session.
Federal agencies’ budgets expire Oct. 1, so Congress will likely pass legislation keeping the doors open for several weeks while leaders negotiate an overall spending package.
Failure to do that would mean a federal shutdown, which GOP leaders want to avoid because the public faulted them the last time it happened. Two years ago, government offices closed for 16 days after conservatives insisted on using the deadline to try forcing Obama to roll back his health care law — a confrontation Republicans lost.