WASHINGTON (AP) — No sooner had President Barack Obama announced a nuclear deal with Iran than Sen. Chuck Schumer issued a statement pledging to go through it with a fine-tooth comb, talk with administration officials, listen to experts on all sides and carefully study it.
Everything, that is, except provide even a whisper of a hint of how he will vote on it.
It’s a political straddle that reflects the 64-year-old New York senator’s competing roles as next-in-line Senate Democratic leader, unquestioned congressional ally of Israel, leading fundraiser and strategist for his party, and lawmaker from a state that is home to more than a million-and-a-half Jews.
“Sen. Schumer is going to be instrumental in helping to determine where this lands,” said Rep. Steve Israel, a fellow Jewish Democratic lawmaker from New York who’s been an outspoken skeptic on the deal. As the White House lobbies senators to support the pact, “He’s going to have a major role in determining where they end up.”
Indeed, with the leaders of Israel and their supporters in the U.S. strongly opposed to the accord, observers on and off Capitol Hill say that the only chance congressional opponents have is if they get Schumer in their corner.
Sometime in the fall, Congress will vote on whether to approve or disapprove of the Iran deal. If enough hawkish Democrats join Republicans and the disapprove side prevails, Obama would veto the legislation.
At that point the focus would turn to whether Congress could override Obama’s veto, which takes a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. Chances of that are slim, but with Schumer on their side opponents might stand a chance.
“There is no way a veto would be overridden without Sen. Schumer,” said Aaron Keyak, a consultant to several Jewish groups and former Democratic congressional aide. “Finding 67 votes to override a presidential veto is a very high threshold and there is no way to get to that number without Sen. Schumer.”
That helps explain the intense pressures on Schumer and a handful of other key senators in a debate that pro-Israel groups have made clear will be their top focus, bar none, in the months to come.
With the deal just a few days old, Schumer is already being targeted in advertising, news releases and social media from both sides.
The Emergency Committee for Israel announced an ad campaign on New York City cable television encouraging New Yorkers to “Call Sen. Schumer and tell him he must stand firm” on his insistence that the deal allow nuclear inspections anytime and anywhere, which opponents contend it does not. Another group, Secure America Now, has been urging supporters over Twitter to call Schumer and tell him to oppose the deal.
On the opposite side, the progressive group Credo issued a statement warning that “Democrats who sabotage the Iran deal will face consequences,” and listed Schumer, who likely will win re-election next year, as a top target. Adding to the pressure, the Democrats’ likely presidential nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has cautiously embraced the deal.
At the middle of the storm, the famously media-friendly Schumer has gone uncharacteristically quiet. Questioned at an unrelated news conference this week, he repeated his initial written statement nearly word for word.
“I will sit down, I will read the agreement thoroughly, and then I’m going to speak with officials, administration officials, people all over, on all different sides,” Schumer said. “This is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly, and I am going to just study this agreement and talk to people before I do anything else.”
Congressional allies say Schumer seems genuinely torn.
“He’s obviously got pressures and I assume he’s going to do the right thing,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who is undecided and facing similar pressures. “There are very severe upsides and very severe downsides.”
Obama argues the deal closes off Iran’s pathway to a nuclear bomb for the next decade, and has challenged opponents to come up with an alternative. The liberal Jewish group J Street is backing the deal, and the group’s vice president of government affairs, Dylan Williams, said Schumer risks angering progressive voters if he breaks with the White House.
“This deal is and will continue to be supported by an overwhelming majority of Sen. Schumer’s Democratic base and if there is a political consideration here that would be the overriding one,” Williams said.
But the powerful pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee is vehemently opposed to the deal, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is denouncing all over U.S. media as undermining the security of Israel and the region.
Steven J. Rosen, a former longtime senior official with the group, said that backing the deal could hurt Schumer with the pro-Israel community — and with donors in New York.
“I think he wants to be seen as one of Israel’s most important friends in the United States. A bad vote here could have lasting damage on his standing in that regard,” Rosen said. “The White House has put him in a very, very tough position here.”
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