Overcoming ferocious opposition, President Barack Obama secured a legacy-defining foreign policy victory Wednesday as Senate Democrats clinched the necessary votes to ensure the Iran nuclear agreement survives in Congress.
The decisive 34th commitment came from Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring next year after three decades in the Senate. In a statement she said "no deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime." But she called the pact "the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb."
Supporters now have the votes in hand to uphold Obama's veto, if one becomes necessary, of a resolution of disapproval Republicans are trying to pass this month. GOP lawmakers who control the House and Senate ardently oppose the agreement, which curbs Iran's nuclear program in exchange for hundreds of billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions.
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Shortly after Mikulski's announcement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., grudgingly acknowledged that his side would not be able to block the deal after Obama, in his words, secured "the tepid, restricted and partisan support of one-third of one house of Congress." McConnell spared the accord no criticism, saying it leaves Iran "with a threshold nuclear capability."
Israel also has railed against the deal, arguing that its conditions would keep Iran perilously close to developing nuclear weapons while enriching a government that has funded anti-U.S. and anti-Israel militants throughout the Middle East. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had personally lobbied U.S. lawmakers to block the pact, will continue fighting the agreement, an Israeli official said, while a spokesman for the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC said his group also would seek to build further opposition.
In Philadelphia, Secretary of State John Kerry defended the deal. "Rejecting this agreement would not be sending a signal of resolve to Iran, it would be broadcasting a message so puzzling that most people across the globe would find it impossible to comprehend," he told lawmakers and civic leaders at the National Constitution Center. His speech was carried live on Iranian television, an unusual occurrence.
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Yet for all the geopolitical ramifications, the debate in the U.S. has often seemed more about domestic partisan politics over a resolution that, on its own, wouldn't be able to reverse a multi-country agreement already blessed by the United Nations. A vote of disapproval, however, could signal Congress' readiness to introduce new sanctions at the risk of causing Tehran — and other governments — to abandon the accord and blame the U.S. for the failure.
Among American lawmakers, the debate has broken along party lines. Republicans, defending their congressional majorities and aiming for the White House in next year's elections, have denounced the deal in apocalyptic terms. The bulk of Democrats have rushed to the president's defense.
Next week, Donald Trump will headline a rally outside the Capitol against the agreement, along with fellow presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz and talk show host Glenn Beck, as lawmakers return from a five-week recess to begin debating it. Several GOP presidential hopefuls issued statements Wednesday vowing to undo the agreement if they are elected. "When I'm president of the United States, we will re-impose those sanctions on day one," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said.
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Supporters of the deal are seeking an even bigger victory. If they can assemble 41 votes in favor in the Senate, they'd be able to block the disapproval resolution from passing at all, sparing Obama the embarrassment of having to veto it. They would need seven of the remaining 10 undeclared Democrats to back the agreement, though several in this group could still come out in opposition.
Either way, Obama has succeeded in selling a package that prompted immediate and intense opposition from Republicans in the days after it was concluded on July 14 by Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Millions were spent lobbying against the pact. Polls registered significant public distrust.
But none of the skepticism translated into enough Democratic opposition to threaten the deal, partly resulting from the upside-down voting process involved.
Because the Obama administration didn't consider it a treaty, ratification wasn't dependent on two-thirds approval in the Senate. Instead, Republicans and Democrats agreed on a process that essentially allowed the pact to stand if it gained the support of just one-third of lawmakers in either chamber, since two-thirds majorities in both would be needed to override a veto of the disapproval resolution.
Only two Senate Democrats, Chuck Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, have announced their opposition so far. Menendez, in particular, highlighted the potential threat to Israel.
In a letter delivered to Congress Wednesday, Kerry called Israel's security "sacrosanct," recounting the billions of dollars the U.S. has provided the Jewish state for missile defense and other support. U.S. and Israeli officials, he said, are working on a deal to "cement for the next decade our unprecedented levels of military assistance."