House Democrats were briefed on the Iran nuclear deal Thursday afternoon by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Energy Earnest J. Moniz, but many sounded as undecided when they came out as when they went in.
"I'm working through it," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “That’s why we have 60 days.” Congress is set to vote on a resolution — sooner than that — to approve the sweeping agreement to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
At this point it is almost a foregone conclusion the deal will fail to get sufficient support on Capitol Hill, where the Republican majority is virtually united in opposition to the framework.
With the White House pledging to veto a disapproval resolution, the next question is: Will Democrats, despite their own doubts about the deal, rally again to President Barack Obama in numbers sufficient to sustain his veto?
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she’s confident, and several lawmakers emerging from the closed-door meeting with Kerry and Moniz said they were optimistic they would get to that point.
Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., called voting for the Iran nuclear deal "the most important decision we may ever make in our lifetime," and tantamount to "averting nuclear war."
“I grew up in the '60s, and what got me into politics was ‘give peace a chance, avoid war,’” Farr told reporters. “For the first time in my life, instead of voting on whether we’re gonna invade Iraq or not invade Iraq, or invade this or invade that, or Bosnia, or whatever, for the first time in my life we have a chance to vote on something that will avoid war. And that’s so fundamental, so historical. I can’t see why anybody in their right mind wouldn’t support this.”
“I think most people are sympathetic or leaning towards it,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., on his read of the caucus. “Not everyone is willing to jump aboard, they’re still going through their own due diligence. … I think the momentum is in the right direction.”
But every vote counts and it’s not clear Democratic supporters of the plan have reached the necessary threshold to ensure a winning outcome. Many of Obama’s allies in the House who describe themselves as “undecided” and “concerned” are outwardly struggling with what to do.
Many are unlikely to make their decisions known until the eleventh hour, which will present challenges for a vote count — as it is, there probably won’t be a formal whip operation from leadership since the issue is being treated as a “conscience vote.”
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., called the deal “good, bad and ugly.”
“The good is they get rid of their stockpile, 95 percent. The bad,” he continued, is that Iranians will “get their hands on $56 billion,” which he said they will use to “kill a lot of Sunni Muslims, some of who deserve it and many of whom do not, and what’s left over will go to kill Americans and Israelis.”
“I haven’t even gotten to the ugly,” Sherman said. “In the next decade it gets ugly, unlimited number, unlimited quality of centrifuge, quality and quantity. So when you ask me where I am, I might be willing to take the good with the bad, but I gotta prevent the ugly.”
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., told reporters he was hoping to vote “yes” but wanted to see certain concerns addressed. Plus he had to make the case to his constituents.
“I’m not saying I am in a particularly unique situation, but I think those of us who are Jewish have more on the line politically than other people because we’ve all got Jewish constituents and supporters and while J Street supports the agreement … most of the people you hear on the issue are [from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], and AIPAC will never be for it.”
Cohen said Jewish House Democrats have gotten a lot of attention from the Obama administration in recent months, showing an “understanding we’re in a special situation.”
He added, however, that House Democrats made clear to Kerry and Moniz Thursday they all want to feel the president is engaged personally.
“They’d like to see the president really come to Democrats and let it be known that he really needs this, needs us,” Cohen said. “There’s been a request that he has some kind of meeting with Democrats and other Cabinet members where we all kind of sit down … certainly there’s a desire to have face time.”
Another group of lawmakers, including several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, joined the president Thursday for a flight to Kenya, where Obama is kicking off a four-day diplomatic swing through Africa. Among the 10 members on Air Force One were two key senators the president has been lobbying on the Iran deal, Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware.