One of the more reliable tricks in the congressional publicity playbook is to write and release a letter demanding the president do something — right after getting word that the hoped-for decision has already been made.
Looking to reward a recently helpful senator or to woo a House member in advance of a close vote, past White Houses have done plenty of trading in this sort of insider information. A heads-up about an impending personnel move, public works proposal or policy shift is golden to a lawmaker, who can then create an “earned media” windfall by urging the impending action — then claiming some prescience or credit when the thing comes to pass.
“I was glad the president took my advice last week and nominated our mayor for the judgeship,” for example, or, “Thankfully he understood my case for a new mess hall at Camp Swampy and included money for that project in his budget.”
President Barack Obama’s legislative affairs team hasn’t done much helping of lawmakers with such leaks, one of the many reasons his relations with all corners of the Hill remain lackluster six months (and a couple of canceled picnics) after a series of lavish and intimate dinners looked to get congressional outreach on better footing in the second term.
That’s why the letters espousing a presidential hard line toward Iran, released Monday by four of the most prominent and press-savvy foreign policy voices in the Senate, appeared particularly noteworthy — seeking to put words in Obama’s mouth just hours before he’s expected to use them.
Congress has no imminent role to play in shaping the relationship between the United States and Iran under its new president, Hassan Rouhani. But, especially so soon after the off, then on, and now off again, congressional involvement in Syria, lawmakers in both parties have no intention of yielding the field for even a few days while Obama gauges Rouhani’s sincerity about opening a new era of engagement with the West and forswearing nuclear weapons.
One of the big foreign policy stories of the week is whether Obama and Rouhani will come face to face on Tuesday, when each addresses the United Nations. Even an exchange of diplomatic small talk would represent the first meeting of Iranian and American leaders in 36 years.
Administration officials have hinted such an encounter is in the offing, probably at U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s lunch for world leaders. That means it would come after Obama has the opportunity to use his speech to the 68th General Assembly to say just what the quartet of senators want: The United States will not tolerate a nuclear-capable Iran. And it will maintain its designed-to-be-crippling economic sanctions on Tehran until a comprehensive commitment to stop all enrichment and reprocessing activities has been totally verified — no matter how emphatically Rouhani professes a willingness to negotiate a halt to his country’s atomic program, which he says is entirely for peaceful purposes.
“Talks cannot be merely a stalling tactic while Iran continues to move forward with aggressive enrichment of uranium,” Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, and John McCain of Arizona, the chamber’s most prominent Republican hawk, wrote in one letter. “Now is not the time to let up on this pressure.”
The other missive came from Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, McCain’s GOP defense and foreign policy sidekick. Iran’s election in August “was an indicator of discontent among the Iranian people and we have taken note of recent diplomatic overtures,” they said, but “whatever nice words we may hear from Mr. Rouhani, it is Iranian action that matters.”
It would not be a surprise if those sound bites were reflected almost verbatim in Obama’s text. That would be a decent signal that — even as the U.N. sets to work on a Syria resolution that indefinitely delays a vote in Congress on military action — the president is looking to have de facto congressional buy-in from the start on a new phase in Iranian relations.
The almost-photocopied advice from Schumer, Menendez, McCain and Graham might be the most consequential thing the president is hearing about Iran from Capitol Hill this week, but it’s not the only thing.
More than 60 House members from both sides have been photographed next to the message “Free Amir,” part of a campaign by freshman Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan to make the plight of one of his constituents a cause célèbre at the U.N. meeting. Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran who holds both U.S. and Iranian passports, has been imprisoned in Iran for more than two years, although his conviction of being a CIA spy has been vacated by Iran’s top court.
Kildee is hoping his publicity campaign will lead the administration to insist on Hekmati’s release as part of any agreement to even start nuclear talks — or, better yet, prompt Rouhani to order the Flint, Mich., man’s release as a gesture of good faith.
So far, though, there’s no indication the congressman is going to all that effort with confidence he’ll get what he’s after.