The Slatest

The Real Reason the Iran Debate Is So Heated: It’s Actually About 2016

Chuck Schumer, hearing it from both sides.

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The White House is now trotting out John F. Kennedy as part of its ongoing effort to sell Congress and the public on the recently negotiated deal with Iran. On Wednesday, President Obama will give yet another speech to the nation defending the deal, this one at American University—a location chosen as an invocation of Kennedy’s famous 1963 address on Cold War nuclear diplomacy.

Obama’s sales pitch has already included his initial remarks to the nation after the deal was announced, a feisty press conference on July 15, a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and phone calls to the undecided lawmakers considering whether to vote in favor of the agreement. Wednesday’s speech will come after a recent CNN poll showing a majority of Americans want congress to reject the deal.

Congress has until mid-September to decide whether to pass a resolution blocking the deal. Obama has vowed to veto the resolution, though he would obviously prefer not to. There’s almost certainly enough support to pass a resolution in the House—one congressman claims 218 members, including two Democrats, are already on board. But for a veto-proof, two-thirds majority, the GOP will need all 28 remaining Republicans and 44 Democrats—a tall order.

On the Senate side, Arizona’s Jeff Flake is the only Republican who might conceivably support the deal. But assuming his party can bring him in line, it would still require six Democrats to pass a resolution and 14 to override Obama’s veto.

The undecided Democrats in both houses, particularly the Jewish members, are currently the targets of a massive lobbying campaign from both sides. A group set up by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is planning to spend between $20 million and $40 million lobbying against the deal. Raising the rhetorical stakes, the president has compared critics of the deal to backers of the Iraq war who went on to regret their votes.

So far, it seems like Obama is winning: In the House, the White House has recently picked up the support of Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a prominent member of the House Jewish Caucus, and Michigan’s Sandy Levin, the House’s longest-serving Jewish member. On the Senate side, the White House picked up a major endorsement today with Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. Kaine, who has been a critic of the administration’s foreign policy on constitutional grounds, was one of the most prominent backers of the legislation setting up the congressional review period, but whatever concerns he had about the agreement itself have apparently been met. Conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia seems to be leaning toward backing the White House as well.

Hawkish Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey seems likely to vote with the GOP to kill the deal. And a few senators seem genuinely on the fence, including Delaware’s Chris Coons and Virginia’s Mark Warner. New York’s Chuck Schumer insists he’s undecided but seems to be leaning toward opposing the deal. Schumer, with impeccable pro-Israel bona fides and likely the next Democratic leader, is undoubtedly the biggest prize for both sides.

Overriding Obama’s veto is real long shot. But even if they can’t block the deal, Republicans are looking ahead to the campaign against Hillary Clinton, who quickly endorsed the deal and, as former secretary of state, will inevitably be tied to Obama’s foreign policy, though she was generally more hawkish than the president on Iran.

Public approval and disapproval of the agreement is softer than both sides claim—answers vary significantly depending on how pollsters ask the question. Obama probably has the votes to put the agreement in place. But if he has to use a veto to push it through narrowly over the objections of prominent Democrats, including the party’s Senate leader and most prominent Jewish member, it becomes a much more effective line of attack against Clinton. Given that at least one prominent GOP candidate has promised to throw out the deal on the first day of his presidency, that raises the stakes of this debate significantly.