The White House said Friday it was unfazed by a leading Democratic senator’s move to oppose the nuclear agreement with Iran, expressing confidence that the deal would garner enough votes to pass Congress.
“I would describe this as an announcement that was not particularly surprising to anyone here at the White House, even if it was disappointing,” spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Friday, responding to a decision by New York’s Chuck Schumer to come out against the deal, the first Democratic senator to do so.
“There’s no denying that this difference of opinion that emerged overnight is one that has existed between Senator Schumer and President Obama for over a decade,” he said.
Earnest said 13 senators had already publicly committed to endorse the Iran deal, and many more also supported it, even if they had not made statements on the agreement yet.
“It doesn’t change our confidence that we’ll be able to mobilize a substantial majority of Democrats both in the House and in the Senate in support of the deal when and if necessary,” he said.
Earlier Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry said he “profoundly disagrees” with the reasoning behind Schumer’s decision.
On Thursday, Schumer issued a statement saying that “after deep study, careful thought and considerable soul-searching, I have decided I must oppose the agreement and will vote yes on a motion of disapproval.”
He specifically complained that the deal was lacking “anytime, anywhere” provisions for inspections of suspected nuclear sites.
US President Barack Obama needs at least 34 of the Senate’s 40 Democrats to vote in favor of the deal to avoid a veto-busting supermajority.
Schumer had been thought to be next in line for a top Democratic leadership position, but Earnest said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if that calculus changed after the Jewish lawmaker broke with Obama.
Schumer signaled that he wouldn’t lobby hard against the accord, saying that “in my experience with matters of conscience and great consequence like this, each member ultimately comes to their own conclusion.”
After his announcement two other Democrats, both in the House, followed suit.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and an additional Democratic member of the panel, Brad Sherman of California, both said they would vote against the deal Friday.
Five weeks before crucial votes in Congress, Schumer’s decision was seen as a blow to the administration, whose intense lobbying on Capitol Hill since last month’s deal had produced a steady stream of support from Democrats who had been the most vocal in demanding congressional oversight.
Faced with uniform Republican opposition, the administration has targeted Democrats, and 21 of the 188 House Democrats have announced their support while nine oppose the deal.
‘Ongoing concerns with Iran’
Earnest also said he could not confirm reports that hard-line Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani had traveled to Moscow to speak with Russian officials over an arms deal, breaking a travel ban.
However, he said reports of Iran flouting international law did raise concerns in Washington.
“It is an indication of our ongoing concerns with Iran and their behavior and in the mind of the president makes it all that more important that we pursue the best available strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Earlier in the day an Iranian official confirmed that Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, had spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top officials.
The Kremlin did not comment of the report.
Soleimani, a powerful and shadowy figure who has recently become the public face of Iran’s fighting in Syria and Iraq, has been under a UN travel ban since 2007.
The Quds Force, which functions as the foreign wing of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, was designated by the US as a supporter of terrorism in 2007, and by the European Union in 2011.
Earnest said Soleimani had been under US sanctions “Because of efforts he has undertaken to support terrorist organizations around world.”
He added that Washington hoped “Russia will continue to act cooperatively with the international community.”