In a major rebuke to the White House, Sen. Chuck Schumer, a powerful Jewish Democrat and the presumptive next leader of his party in the Senate, said that he would vote against President Barack Obama’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran.
In a statement posted Thursday night during the first GOP presidential debate, the New York lawmaker said he would support a resolution of disapproval, which would prevent the president from lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran and unravel the nuclear accord agreed to by six world powers and Iran last month. Importantly, Schumer said he would not pressure other Democrats to vote against the agreement.
The White House needs 34 senators to sustain a veto against Republican opponents. At the current juncture, 12 Senate Democrats and an independent from Maine, Angus King, have pledged support for the deal. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a liberal independent, and Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island are also expected to vote in support of the deal.
“Advocates on both sides have strong cases for their point of view that cannot simply be dismissed,” Schumer said in a lengthy statement. “This has made evaluating the agreement a difficult and deliberate endeavor, and after deep study, careful thought and considerable soul-searching, I have decided I must oppose the agreement and will vote yes on a motion of disapproval.”
Schumer’s statement came on the same day that Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also came out against the deal.
Despite Engel’s prominence, Schumer’s announcement is far more significant. Senior congressional aides told Foreign Policy the move will make it easier for other wavering Democrats to buck the White House and join Republicans in opposing the deal. Administration officials, mindful that Schumer was likely to vote “no,” had hoped the media-friendly lawmaker would keep his powder dry for a few more weeks to ease pressure on other undecided Democrats likely to come under scrutiny during the August recess. Schumer didn’t go that far, but he did release his statement in the middle of a GOP presidential debate that he and his aides knew would drown out most other news.
Schumer’s decision doesn’t come as a surprise. For more than a year, Schumer has been outspokenly critical of the president’s deal, which offers Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions and inspections on its nuclear program. Schumer is a longtime ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization that is spending millions of dollars across the country to try to persuade lawmakers to block the agreement.
His move immediately sparked an outcry from liberal Democrats, who questioned his party leadership credentials and progressive bona fides.
“It is outrageous and unacceptable that the Democrat who wants to be the party’s leader in the Senate is siding with the Republican partisans and neoconservative ideologues who are trying to scrap this agreement and put us on the path to war,” said Ilya Sheyman, a director at the liberal activist group MoveOn.org.
Other prominent liberals began making note of Schumer’s other controversial remarks in the last year, such as his declaration in November that passing comprehensive health care reform in the early days of Obama’s presidency was a strategic mistake.
“Chuck Schumer, who said it was a mistake to pass Obamacare, now comes out against the Iran deal. This is our next Senate leader?” tweeted former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau.
This week, Schumer’s aides had hinted to the press that a “no” vote was likely, and there were other leading indicators as well. On Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, corralled a group of roughly 30 Senate Democrats to meet with senior diplomats of America’s negotiating partners on the Iran deal: France, Britain, China, Russia, and Germany, or the so-called P5+1.
While Schumer skipped the meeting, it proved critical for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another New York Democrat, who credited the gathering with convincing her to support the Iran deal. “When I questioned the ambassadors of our P5+1 allies, it also became clear that if we reject this deal, going back to the negotiation table is not an option,” she said.
While Thursday’s announcements from Gillibrand and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen gave deal supporters some enthusiasm, it was quickly undone by the announcements by Schumer and Engel.
“The answers I’ve received simply don’t convince me that this deal will keep a nuclear weapon out of Iran’s hands, and may in fact strengthen Iran’s position as a destabilizing and destructive influence across the Middle East,” Engel said.
A vote is expected when lawmakers return to Washington in September. Under the terms of a U.S. law passed earlier this year, Congress can vote to prevent the United States from lifting sanctions on Iran and, effectively, unravel the nuclear accord struck in Vienna by the United States, Iran, and five world powers.