Where's Schumer on Iran?

Where's Schumer on Iran?
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One of the enduring, and some ways endearing, jokes in the nation’s capital is that the most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a television camera. Not this month. Since President Obama announced the nuclear deal with Iran, the usually gregarious New York Democrat has mostly avoided talking about the agreement other than to say he plans to study it carefully, and his critical support or opposition has been difficult to pin down. 

When the agreement was initially announced last week, Schumer released a short statement with no hints as to which way he might be leaning, only saying he intended to “go through this agreement with a fine-tooth comb, speak with administration officials, and hear from experts on all sides.” He pointed to his support for legislation that gave Congress a say in the agreement, and added that the deal “is not a decision to be made lightly.”

He added to those comments in an interview with MSNBC that aired Sunday, in which he said he planned to begin studying the agreement “thoroughly and quietly” over the weekend before talking with people on both sides of the issue.

Asked in the Capitol Tuesday if he’d had a chance to go over the Iran deal over the weekend, Schumer cut off the question.

“Look, here’s what I’ve said. I’m going over the Iran agreement with a fine-tooth comb, I’m talking to people on both sides. I pushed for [Sen. Bob Corker’s legislation] to give it a very serious review, and I’m doing that,” Schumer said. 

The attention and concern over Schumer’s decision comes because opposing forces are pulling on the New York Democrat. On the one hand, there is pressure from the White House to support an agreement seen as both a key victory for Obama and the best path to prevent a nuclear Iran. On the other hand, Schumer is one of the biggest supporters of Israel in the Senate, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many pro-Israel groups are staunchly against the agreement and urging lawmakers to block it.

Schumer acknowledged competing interests and viewpoints in the interview with MSNBC, but said he won’t let pressure from either side sway him, and will instead do “the right thing,” and vote what he believes is best for America first and foremost, and what’s best for Israel. Again, he gave almost no hint of where he stood on the issue.

“I’m just going to wait to read the document, I’m not going to comment on whether I will, whether I won’t, maybe yes, maybe no,” he said. “None of that is helpful right now.”

Others, however, disagree.

Opponents of the agreement are holding a rally Wednesday evening in Times Square in New York City, with a number of high-profile speakers, including a former CIA director, former New York Gov. George Pataki, and current Rep. Trent Franks, to kick off a grassroots campaign seeking to push lawmakers to block the deal.  

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a former aide to Pataki and New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, is a co-organizer of the event. In an interview with RCP Wednesday morning, he previewed some of his comments about Schumer planned for the rally. He said it’s not enough for Schumer to give a big speech at the end of the debate and vote against the agreement, but that if he truly opposes it, he should be rallying other Democratic votes to block the deal.  

“If Chuck is for [blocking] it, full throated and full hearted, it will be defeated,” Wiesenfeld said. “If he goes out there and rounds up the votes and says we have to defeat it, he will be a national hero. If not, he will be exposed as a fraud.”

Wiesenfeld said he’s confident the votes will be there to override a veto if Obama tries to stop Congress from halting the agreement, but said Schumer will be key to that point. Steve Emerson, another organizer of the rally, said it would be inaccurate to characterize it as a rally specifically against Schumer, and emphasized that there are bipartisan speakers. He said that while Republican presidential candidates had expressed interest, only Pataki would be speaking to prevent the event from appearing to be purely partisan.

Asked about Schumer, however, Emerson said if he pushed against the deal, it could sway six to eight Democrats, possibly bringing along enough votes to override a veto.

Schumer’s Democratic colleagues, however, don’t think his decision to support or oppose the deal would sway members one way or another, not because he lacks respect and authority, but because the Iran agreement will be what lawmakers call a “vote of conscience.”

“I’m talking to many of my colleagues, including Senator Schumer, but each of us has to make up our own minds based on conscience and conviction and the facts as we see them,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told RCP.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, echoed the sentiment when asked if Schumer’s opinion would be able to sway votes for or against the agreement.

“On many things it would. I think this is such an important issue – in some way the more important the issue, the less what any member does affects the others, because we all have strong feelings about it,” Kaine said.

Several former Schumer and Capitol Hill aides, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to provide personal insights, agreed that despite the significant attention being paid to Schumer’s vote, it won’t swing support for the agreement one way or the other.

“I think that there are a whole lot of votes that members take that they want to look to somebody for some guidance on, but I think that there are a handful of votes that members have to take that they really need to be comfortable in their own skin on and I think this is one of them,” one former Schumer aide told RCP. “I disagree with this idea that one senator is going to move a caucus. I just don’t buy that.”

One former Democratic Senate staffer called the attention being paid to Schumer’s position “overblown.”

Opponents who point to Schumer’s importance in stopping the deal have been critical of his lack of position thus far, a week and a half after the agreement was announced. The New York Post published an editorial Monday criticizing his lack of a position, and Wiesenfeld said it was “unheard of” for Schumer not to be speaking more to the media about his stance.

“You know where Chuck is right now? He’s with Punxsutawney Phil, underground until next Groundhog Day,” Wiesenfeld said.

Several of his former staffers defended Schumer’s decision to remain silent regarding support or opposition to the deal, arguing that the agreement is complicated and he should be studying the details first.  

“Just because the guy is actually going through the agreement and reading it and thinking about it does not mean he’s hiding from it,” one former Schumer aide said.

In the end, whether or not Schumer can move votes in the Senate either to preserve or defeat the agreement, his position will still be one of consequence, both because of his staunch support for Israel and his role as the likely next Democratic leader in the chamber. The White House is leaving no stone unturned in lobbying lawmakers for support, with Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, the key negotiators of the agreement, making multiple trips to Capitol Hill this week to brief and testify before lawmakers in public and private. Despite that effort, Jim Manley, a longtime Senate aide for Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy, said he doubted the White House’s ability to sway Schumer.

“He’s going to be around for the next couple years, he’s leader in some form or fashion in two years and the president’s going to be gone, so there’s not a lot of leverage there,” Manley said.

One former Capitol Hill aide argued that despite the intense lobbying effort, the administration might have trouble convincing any lawmakers, beyond just Schumer, to support them, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the votes won’t be there.  

“I think they’ve not got a lot of political capital to spend,” the former aide said. “With this year and a half left, it’s hard for me to really see what they offer wobbly members. I don’t know how much. I think they have to lean in, I think they will lean in, what that gets them at the end of the day, I’m not 100 percent sure.”

Schumer, for his part, said he’s not afraid to vote against the president when he thinks Obama is wrong. He pointed to Trade Promotion Authority, which made it through Congress earlier this year with mostly Republican support and some stiff Democratic opposition despite an intense White House lobbying effort. Schumer and current Democratic Leader Harry Reid both voted against that legislation.

“I’m not going to comment until I read the document, that’s what’s going to guide me. But look, when I think the president is wrong, I go against him,” Schumer said. “There are times when I’ve broken with the president before when I really think I have a different point of view and the right thing is not what he’s doing.”


James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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