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Heading into August recess, Obama administration pushes hard for Iran deal

Many in D.C. agree: they’ve never witnessed President Obama work Congress this hard — ever.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz has been meeting with lawmakers, pushing for the deal.
RUETERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON — There’s still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the fate of the Iran nuclear deal in Congress, but many in D.C. agree on one point: they’ve never witnessed President Obama push Congress this hard — ever.

The White House is aiming to ensure that Congress doesn’t scuttle its painstakingly negotiated agreement, which would subject Iran to a strict inspection regime designed to stifle its nuclear weapons program, in return for countries lifting economic sanctions.

If Congress were to do nothing, the agreement would go forward. But Republican leaders are hoping to pass a motion of disapproval in September that would explicitly reject the agreement. On its surface, such a rejection should be unconcerning to Obama, since he can veto it.

But it becomes a problem for the White House if the deal’s opponents amass a veto-proof majority of 290 members in the House and 67 in the Senate. If all House Republicans vote for the resolution, at least 44 Democrats would need to cross the aisle to bypass Obama’s pen. At least 13 Senate Democrats would have to do the same. The White House now finds itself working hard to woo skeptical Democrats, and prevent the entire Congressional Republican caucus from voting no.

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In conversations with lawmakers, Obama and other administration officials have stressed that the deal being considered is the best that negotiators from the U.S. and its partners — Russia, China, France, Great Britain, and Germany — could’ve gotten. They say that Iranian nuclear facilities will be subjected the the most rigorous inspections ever, and that it would delay a nuclear-armed Iran for decades. And, most importantly, the administration argues that rejecting the deal would embarrass the U.S., harm its credibility with Iran and negotiating partners, and jeopardize negotiations going forward.

Republicans felt ignored

That line of argument isn’t resonating much on the Republican side of the aisle.

For their part, Minnesota’s three Republican representatives argue that the U.S. got a bad deal — and suggest that if the Obama administration had seriously engaged with Republicans, they would’ve gotten a deal they could support. Each intends to vote no, and it’s unlikely the deal will find much — if any — support within the House GOP.

To that point, 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen brings up a letter, which he co-signed with 366 of his House colleagues of both parties, including Reps. Tom Emmer, John Kline, Collin Peterson, and Rick Nolan. The letter outlined certain benchmarks they sought in a deal, including the so-called “anytime, anywhere” inspections of Iranian facilities.

Paulsen says he got the idea those concerns were heard by members of the administration — but they weren’t. “We ended up with a bad deal, because whether it was the president or Secretary Kerry, they were giving the perception that…benchmarks would be met, and none of them are met,” he said.

6th District Rep. Tom Emmer expressed similar frustration: that the administration is now flooding lawmakers after mostly ignoring them — particularly Republicans — while the negotiations occurred. Emmer brought up a meeting in March where Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before House members: he said “we’ll engage, we want you to be involved, we want you to understand,” Emmer recalls. “The next time we heard from Secretary Kerry was a week ago.”

Both Emmer and Paulsen say that the deal could stall in Congress, and Emmer attributes that to what he says is the White House’s long-running failure to cultivate a good relationship with Congress. “It doesn’t appear they do much of a job in engaging Congress in anything they’re working on that they think is important — they haven’t built relationships on either side of the aisle,” Emmer says. “Then appearing before the House of Representatives and the Senate and suggesting that this must happen and this must happen now,” he laughs, “that makes anything you wanna propose a heavy lift.”

Keeping Democrats in line

With Republican support for the deal unlikely, keeping enough Democrats in line to prevent a veto override is critical to the administration’s strategy.

At least three of Minnesota’s Democrats — Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, and Rick Nolan — will back the deal. 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson is undecided. Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar say they are undecided, though Franken has signalled he’ll probably back the deal.

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Democrats supportive of the deal agree there is a tough road ahead, but are generally optimistic about the deal’s chances, stressing that critics have failed to advance a viable alternative.

Ellison, who was an early supporter of the deal, thinks the administration’s push has been impressive, and says it’s now up to people like him to win over people on the fence. In an interview on Friday, Ellison said that he’s had many conversations with colleagues who are publicly undecided but privately support the deal. “What I’m telling them,” he said, “is if you don’t want to be lobbied to death, be early and be clear, be a leader, and explain to people why this is the best thing for the United States of America, and for the people of Iran.”

Indeed, Jewish-American and pro-Israel groups have put pressure on undecided lawmakers, directly appealing to them in D.C. and encouraging constituents to call their representatives to urge a no vote. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) expects to meet with every member of Congress prior to the vote.

Ellison says this climate has caused Democrats who support the deal to not publicly back it yet, depriving the yes camp of crucial momentum. “There are a whole lot of Democrats who don’t want to say they support it because they don’t want to be in opposition to people in their districts who don’t support it,” Ellison said. “They’re playing politics, even though they know what they’ll do.”

Still undecided, Sen. Al Franken. says he’s been weighing all sides, and is paying special attention to understanding certain scenarios, such as what sanctions might take effect if Iran were found to have violated the terms of the deal.

The senator, who is usually a reliable backer of the Obama administration, has been to meetings with Kerry and other top officials, and has also had conversations with pro-Israel groups like AIPAC. Ultimately, he says he’s been impressed by the administration’s pitch. He recalls a session where Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz spoke to senators in the old Senate chamber of the Capitol, no staff or media present. “I was so impressed with him taking on all comers in terms of that treaty — I was actually pretty astounded with his understanding of the treaty, codicil by codicil.”

Franken said that comments — like Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker telling Kerry he got “fleeced” — were embarrassing and irresponsible. The notion that the U.S. got a bad deal? “I don’t buy it,” Franken says.

Vote after the recess

Both the pro- and anti-deal camps will continue their lobbying just as heavily into the August recess — much of the freshman class will travel on an AIPAC-funded junket to Israel, where they are expected to focus on Iran. (Minnesota’s freshman legislator, Emmer, isn’t going.)

Will undecided Democratic lawmakers make the difficult choice to back what could become a politically toxic deal? Ellison, at least, thinks so. “The supporters, and there are many, need to bite the bullet and have tough conversations with constituents and explain, I’ve been in the briefings, been in the classified meetings.

“We gotta have people understand the deal is more important than re-election. If someone says, Keith Ellison shouldn’t be the representative of the 5th Congressional District of the State of Minnesota if he supports this deal, then I will gladly lose reelection over this deal, because it’s the right thing for the country.”

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Correction: This article previously misstated the number of co-signers of the letter referred to by Rep. Erik Paulsen. The letter was signed by 367 representatives. Also, the article previously misstated Rep. Tim Walz’s support for the deal. He is currently undecided.