Democratic senator Mikulski backs Iran deal, clinching Obama win

Maryland lawmaker hands president crucial 34th vote, giving him support to sustain veto in vote on controversial nuclear pact

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

Senate Democrats have rallied the 34 votes they need to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive in Congress, handing US President Barack Obama a major foreign policy victory.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland became the crucial 34th vote Wednesday, declaring the agreement was the best way to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In a statement, Mikulski said she had studied the deal carefully, and had concluded it was the best way forward.

“I’ve considered the alternatives very closely. But in the end, they don’t present a more viable option to this deal,” she wrote. “No deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime. I have concluded that this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb. For these reasons, I will vote in favor of this deal.”

She also called on Congress to affirm its “commitment to the safety and security of Israel.”

Mikulski, 78, has been lauded by the Jewish community as a staunch supporter of Israel during her Senate career, the longest for a female in US history.

Congress is to vote later this month on a resolution disapproving the deal, which is unanimously opposed by Republicans, who call it a dangerous giveaway to Iran.

The backing from Mikulski, who is retiring next year, gives supporters the margin they need to uphold an Obama veto of a congressional resolution of disapproval if Republicans pass such a measure later this month.

And it spells failure for opponents of the international agreement who sought to foil it by turning Congress against it. Leading that effort were Israel and its allies in the US, who failed to get traction after spending millions of dollars trying.

The agreement signed by Iran, the US and five other world powers limits Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for hundreds of billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions. Republicans and Israeli officials contend that concessions made to Iran could enable the country to wreak havoc throughout the Middle East.

There was no immediate reaction from the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has personally lobbied US lawmakers to block the nuclear pact.

Mikulski was reportedly heavily targeted by pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC in its effort to convince lawmakers to vote against the deal.

Mikulski announced in March that she would not seek re-election in 2016.

As chairwoman from 2012 to 2015 of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Mikulski was the lead voice when her committee drew up its annual federal budget. She was a principal player in defense funding, which included significant levels of military aid to Israel and money for joint projects such as the Iron Dome missile defense system.

That included last year’s unanimous passage of $225 million in emergency funding to supply Israel with additional Iron Dome munitions after its stockpile was depleted in last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip.

Secretary of State John Kerry was slated to send a letter to all members of Congress Wednesday outlining US security commitments to Israel and the Gulf Arab states in light of the nuclear deal.

The letter comes as Kerry delivers a major policy speech in Philadelphia that focuses on how the international agreement makes the US and its allies safer.

“I really believe the fastest way to a genuine arms race in the Middle East is to not have this agreement,” Kerry said in a nationally broadcast interview earlier Wednesday. “Because if you don’t have this agreement, Iran has already made clear what its direction is.”

Only two Democratic senators have come out against the deal — Chuck Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey — while in recent weeks Democratic senators, even from red states, have broken in favor one after another.

With opposition to the agreement failing to take hold on the Democratic side, supporters may even be able to muster the 41 votes needed to block the disapproval resolution from passing in the first place, sparing Obama from having to use his veto pen. That would require seven of the 10 remaining undeclared senators to decide in favor of the deal.

Even if Congress were able to pass the disapproval resolution, it can’t stop the deal, which was agreed to among Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

In July, the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the nuclear deal, approving a resolution that would lift the international sanctions on Iran in 90 days.

Interviewed on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program Wednesday, Kerry said that the absence of an agreement could lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. Putting the deal in place, he said, will keep other nations “from chasing a weapon on their own.” Republican critics of the deal argue the opposite, saying nations such as Saudi Arabia may now be spurred toward pursuing nuclear programs of their own.

Kerry said that if the US rejects the deal, it would confirm the fears of Iran’s leaders “that you can’t deal with the West, that you can’t trust the West.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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