Obama rolls out big guns to soften senators on Iran deal

White House gears up to press 27 key Democrats to support controversial keystone of president’s foreign policy legacy

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Vice President Joe Biden listens as President Barack Obama delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, after an Iran nuclear deal is reached. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
Vice President Joe Biden listens as President Barack Obama delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, after an Iran nuclear deal is reached. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

WASHINGTON — In a lengthy press conference about the nuclear deal with Iran, US President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he hoped Congress’s upcoming decision on the agreement would be “based on the facts — not on politics, not on posturing, not on the fact that this is a deal I bring upon us as opposed to a Republican president, not based on lobbying but based on the interest of the United States of America.”

Even as he spoke, however, the White House was revving up on a lobbying campaign of its own – exerting all the force of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on a handful of legislators expected to determine the fate of an agreement over 18 months in the making.

This week, the administration’s point man on Capitol Hill is Vice President Joe Biden. In an unusual — but not altogether unprecedented — gesture, Biden stood alongside the president when Obama made his early Tuesday announcement that a deal had been reached.

On Wednesday Biden, who has not been a major player in the Iran deal sell thus far, became the first administration official to go to Capitol Hill post-deal. He spoke with House Democrats in an effort to push the administration’s talking points on the agreement, which is designed to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon in exchange for comprehensive sanctions relief.

Wednesday’s meeting was likely a warm-up session for Thursday, when Biden was set to meet with Democrats of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

There are 46 Democrats in the Senate, but the administration is likely more concerned with 27 of them.

Based on statements made immediately following the deal’s release, Washington insider site The Hill has counted only five senators – Democrats Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, Martin Heinrich, Jack Reed and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – who are currently definite “yes” votes for the administration.

Another 13 Democrats are seen as leaning toward supporting the administration’s position – but the intentions of the remaining 27 Democrats and one Independent remain unclear. Some, like Senator Robert Menendez, may lean toward rejecting the agreement, but almost all of the yet-undecideds have emphasized that they are still waiting to learn more about the deal.

Under the existing law, Congress may vote on a resolution of approval or disapproval regarding the deal, which is seen as a cornerstone of the president’s foreign policy legacy. Whether a vote of disapproval or approval is taken, the president is likely to lose it by a simple majority. But if the resolution is one of disapproval, Obama will be able to veto it — which he has guaranteed he’ll do. The real challenge for the administration arises after that, when Senate Republicans will try to enlist 13 Democrats to vote against the agreement in order to override the presidential veto.

The administration is sending Biden in to make sure that enough Democrats shore up the administration’s position to sustain any presidential veto down the line.

On top of that, the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are among those likely to take early votes on any resolution of approval or disapproval with the deal. The resolutions are expected to originate in the powerful committee – which is chaired by Senator Bob Corker, who wrote the legislation that allowed for a Congressional vote on the deal in the first place.

Aside from being a fresh face for the administration’s congressional push, Biden is an experienced Senate operator who is popular with both Democratic centrists and pro-Israel circles in the capitol. It was Biden, after all, who was deployed to speak at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day festivities this past spring during a particularly tense period for relations between Jerusalem and the Obama administration. It was he who showed up to light the menorah on the National Mall in December. And it was Biden who addressed the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual conference this spring.

Speaking to Jewish groups, the vice president often emphasizes his concern for Israel’s security by relaying a personal anecdote involving a meeting between a very young Biden and a grandmotherly then-prime minister Golda Meir, in which Meir revealed to Biden that Israel’s secret weapon was the fact that Israelis “have nowhere else to go.”

A more familiar face on Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry, will also go to Capitol Hill next week to testify in support of the deal before members of both parties. But the administration’s lobbying press, which started with conversations with key lawmakers before the deal was even signed, will not end there.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes is expected to meet with a small cadre of Jewish Democratic lawmakers on Thursday morning to discuss the deal. Rhodes, like Biden, is a strategic choice. The son of a Jewish mother, Rhodes is an Obama confidant who wrote the president’s speech during his 2013 visit to Israel.

He has also served as a liaison of sorts between the president and Congressional Jews – all but one of whom are Democrats. In the run-up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech before Congress in early March, Rhodes was dispatched to meet with Jewish members of the House Democratic caucus, purportedly on the then-ongoing Iran talks, but ultimately discussing the upcoming speech as well.

And administration officials are also expected to continue a process they have already begun – of holding one-on-one conversations with key congressional leaders, such as fence-sitting Democratic Senator Chris Coons.

These 28 undecideds are likely at the heart of most of the lobbying efforts in the coming week, both by the administration and its allies and opponents among myriad organizations. Little energy, influence, time or money will be spared in what promises to be one of the administration’s greatest congressional challenges since the passage of the Affordable Care Act – an effort that may come down to a handful of senators and their choices.

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