Race the clock: Key Democrats size up Obama's Iran deal

AP News
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Posted: Jul 17, 2015 3:16 AM
Race the clock: Key Democrats size up Obama's Iran deal

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic lawmakers say they're going to make those 60 days count.

The congressional review of President Barack Obama's deal on Iran's nuclear capability is a hard-won interlude that lawmakers insisted on as part of their successful drive to get an up-or-down vote on the accord — and with it, much of Obama's foreign policy legacy.

The core of Democrats on which Congress's support or rejection rests is in no rush. Some, particularly Jewish members, have questions about how the deal would be enforced, since Iran threatens to annihilate Israel. Others say they fought for those 60 days — during which Obama cannot waive, suspend, reduce or provide relief to Iran from congressional mandated sanctions — and are determined to put them to use.

That means a scant August recess for lobbying — by the White House, pro-Israel groups, liberal organizations — the undecided and the just plain coy who hold the keys to Congress' decision. The subset of those up for re-election in 2016 is under particular pressure as the party tries to gain seats in the House and win back the Senate majority. But even those who will remain in office after Obama leaves the White House, such as Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, are warily examining the accord. By the time they face voters, the verdict on the deal's success or failure could be sealed.

The political calculus for New York Sen. Chuck Schumer is in a class of its own. Many members see him, likely the next Senate Democratic leader, as the most influential member of his party on the issue. For now, Schumer, who is Jewish, is staying mum — under pressure from the president, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and pro-Israel groups opposed to the deal.

And then there's Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who has been sharply critical of the accord.

Congress' recess, when members traditionally return home to hear from their constituents, will be a critical period for determining who's for and against the deal. Obama has said he would veto a congressional statement of disapproval. Two-thirds of each house of Congress would be required to override the veto.

Congress' leaders were reluctant this week to predict the congressional math on the vote this fall. Much about Congress' verdict rests on House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's ability to muster enough Democrats to sustain a veto. On Thursday, she endorsed the accord and said she was optimistic about the prospects of supporting Obama.

Key Democrats to watch as the drama unfolds:

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Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

He's up for re-election next year but is expected to face scant difficulty winning a fourth Senate term. The political stakes of his vote are enormous: As the next-in-line Democratic leader, he's stuck between Israel's opposition to the deal and Obama's advocacy for it. Schumer, 64, represents a state that's 8 percent Jewish — the highest percentage in the nation. He's received nearly $259,000 in contributions from supporters of Israel for the last six years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cardin supported legislation giving Congress an up-or-down vote on the deal, the biggest reason for its bipartisan success. Widely considered the most influential Jewish member of Congress after Schumer, the 71-year-old says he has many questions on how the agreement would work if, say, Iran does not hold up its end of the bargain for inspections. The second-term senator has received nearly $238,500 in donations from backers of Israel, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

The first-term senator is up for re-election next year in a state that's about 3 percent Jewish. He's received $81,640 from pro-Israel interests, and so far, he's not saying how he'll vote. "I welcome the announcement of an agreement with Iran after a long and difficult diplomatic road, but the terms must be carefully and closely reviewed by Congress," said Blumenthal, 60, who is Jewish.

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Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.

Coons is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has jurisdiction over U.S. policy on Iran's nuclear program. He serves in Vice President Joe Biden's former Senate seat. He's collected nearly $148,000 in pro-Israel donations. "I will only support it if this deal prevents every Iranian pathway to develop a nuclear weapons capability," he said.

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House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

The No. 2 Democrat in the House carries clout for his rank as his party's top vote counter, but also for his longevity. Hoyer, 77, has served in the House since 1982. His decision on the agreement will serve as a signal to others, and he'll also have the best sense of whether enough Democrats support the deal to sustain a veto. Hoyer has not revealed his position on the accord, but he said, "Without verification that's meaningful and effective, it's not an agreement I can support." He's collected about $116,000 in pro-Israel donations.