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Where does the Iran nuclear deal stand in Congress?

Congress will vote next month on a measure to disapprove or block the Iran nuclear deal. But will opponents have enough votes? Gwen Ifill talks to chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner and political director Lisa Desjardins.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The Associated Press reports today that under an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran will be allowed to use its own inspectors to investigate one location it has been accused of using to develop nuclear arms.

    This comes about halfway through the 60-day period that Congress has to scrutinize the Iran nuclear deal with the U.S. and five other countries, a period in which we're seeing a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign. Both houses of Congress plan to vote next month on a measure to disapprove, or block, the deal. But opponents face a few hurdles. They first need 60 votes in the Senate. And then, if they get a disapproval bill to the president, he's expected to veto it, meaning they would then need a two-third vote to override him.

    Joining me now for a midway check up on all this, our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, and our political director, Lisa Desjardins.

    Welcome to you both.

    So, Margaret, I will start with you.

    Where do things stand right now?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, Judy, the White House has given up all hope that in fact this deal might be considered on the merits with no partisan consideration and they might actually get an endorsement or some Republicans.

    So they are focused, as you said, on just making sure they have a rock-hard 34 votes to override a veto. And the president is right now working overtime, both from his vacation home in Martha's Vineyard and before that in lots of meetings, to try to get at least 34 to come out publicly.

    That said, right now, they only have 23 to 24 publicly declared supporters. But they did get a boost today when a conservative Democrat from Indiana, Joe Donnelly, who had been on the fence, came out late today and said he would support the deal.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This is a House member?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    No, senator.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Senator. I'm sorry.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    No, so this was big. And this was quite a surprise.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, Lisa, you're watching the Hill very closely. What do you see?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Right.

    I think, from the Hill's perspective, things look pretty good for the president, to be honest, and that's because, as you explained, the president really has two chances to win here. First of all, can opponents get 60 votes to say, we want to block this deal? It's not clear that they can.

    If they do get those 60 votes, then going down the line following all of that together, then they'd need to override a presidential veto, and virtually no one I talk to on the Hill, Judy, thinks that those 67 votes are there right now.

    Why is there some stress, why is there some concern from Democrats? It's because they are still that group of undecided Democrats. It's about a dozen, and that's about as many votes as you need to override the president. So the concern is if there's some breaking news, a story or something that shifts opinion in the next few weeks.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, Margaret, we know the Israelis — we mentioned the millions of dollars that are being spent lobbying on this. We know the Israelis have been very heavily involved. The American Jewish community has been very involved and indeed has been split on this.

    You have been looking at that and also looking at how the rest of the world views everything that's happening in Washington.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, Judy, as you said, Ron Dermer, the ambassador from Israel, has been really working hard — and the White House is pretty furious about that — trying to undermine this deal.

    But, interestingly, the ambassadors of the five countries that negotiated the deal with the U.S. that is the British, the French, the Germans, and the Chinese and the Russians, all got together and met with 25 Senate Democrats about two or three weeks ago. And as one European diplomat said to me, I think this is unprecedented. Our interests never converge.

    And their message was, don't fool yourself. If the U.S. Congress blocks this deal, there is no better deal out there.

    That said, they are — overseas, it's watched with dismay. No other country, other than perhaps Iran, is even taking it to the parliament. And the deputy German ambassador said, the prospect of a rejection of a deal makes us very nervous.

    In Germany, everyone supports the deal. So they are going to feel a lot better if the White House actually has not 24, but 34 announced supporters.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Lisa, you were saying to us earlier today, with so much of the focus now on these Democrats, a lot of this depends on the president's relationship with these Democrats. Margaret mentioned Senator Donnelly.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Right. Right. Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But there are others they have to work on.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That's right.

    Also today, though, we had Senator Ed Markey come out. He's more on the liberal side from Massachusetts, and that's what the White House is doing is they want to roll out a number of yes-votes. They're coming more slowly than the White House wants.

    But I think, Judy, the interesting thing here is, at a tough vote like this, which this is, a president can often be a wild card. If it's a strong relationship, that wild card swings votes the president's way. This president doesn't have that capital with his Democrats in Congress to earn their trust. They frankly don't quite trust him enough to say yes without evaluating this deal extra carefully.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And I'm told, Judy, they are really — at this point, it's really down to substantive and penetrating questions and what happens after year 10.

    And just to follow up from what Lisa said, there's been a lot of dismay or some dismay in Democratic quarters over the president's tone at times, for instance, his speech at American University, where he — one person said he appeared to be lecturing and he equated the opponents here with Iranian hard-liners, which offended some Democrats.

    And then I'm told by a leader of a major Jewish organization who supports the deal, but he was in that private meeting that the president held with heads of Jewish organizations. He said the president's frustration really showed through. He said, he was like a professor who said, I have been teaching this class for five years, and they still don't get it.

    That said, the White House believes that, one way or another, either by frustrating the 60 votes that the opponents need to even get to a vote, if you understand, or by actually overriding a veto, they can make this deal go through.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, finally, Lisa, who are they watching the most? Who is this coming down to in the Senate?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    We haven't from Harry Reid or Patty Murray yet, Democratic leaders, but it would be a surprise if they vote against the Iran deal.

    I think the ones to watch are, say, Cory Booker in the Senate and Michael Bennet. Bennet is up for reelection. The time to watch will be the week of September 7. That's when the Senate is expected to start debate.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Labor Day week.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And there is a belief that Senator Ben Cardin is a very important vote — he's the ranking Democrat now on Foreign Relations — and that he's going to be very tough, given the district, given his home in Baltimore.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Interesting to watch the intra-Democratic back-and-forth and argument on this.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    That's right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Lisa Desjardins, Margaret Warner, we thank you.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    My pleasure.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    A pleasure.

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