Fate Of Iran Nuclear Deal Could Rest With Chuck Schumer

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., expresses his dismay at Russian Vladimir Putin leader granting asylum to American secrets leaker Edward Snowden, at a newss conference at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013.... Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., expresses his dismay at Russian Vladimir Putin leader granting asylum to American secrets leaker Edward Snowden, at a newss conference at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013. Defying the United States, Russia granted Edward Snowden temporary asylum on Thursday, allowing the National Security Agency leaker to slip out of the Moscow airport where he has been holed up for weeks in hopes of evading espionage charges back home. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) MORE LESS
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WASHINGTON — New York Sen. Chuck Schumer won’t be the Democratic leader for 21 months. But the man who has locked up the support of top Democrats to replace Harry Reid is already facing a tough leadership test.

It’s crunch time for President Barack Obama as he seeks to prevent Congress from achieving a veto-proof majority to scuttle a major deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. Many Republicans are unhappy with the framework for an agreement to cut off Iran’s paths to a bomb and are pushing legislation that the White House says would threaten the negotiations.

Republicans appear to have large majorities to pass it, and that includes support from a significant number of Democrats in both chambers. But the question of whether they achieve the two-thirds majority in the Senate could hinge on Schumer and the role he decides to play.

“He will play a big role,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

The Democratic leader-in-waiting is torn between his longstanding position as an unwavering hawk on Iran and his close alliance with Obama. How he threads that needle could encourage a large bloc of fence-sitting Democrats to follow him and either protect a major initiative Obama has staked his foreign policy legacy on — or align with Republicans and undermine it.

After holding his tongue last week upon announcement of the framework, Schumer signaled this week he will support legislation led by Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) to ensure congressional review of any deal and give Congress the chance to block it. Corker intends to take up the bill next Tuesday and approve it in committee, potentially with amendments.

“This is a very serious issue that deserves careful consideration, and I expect to have a classified briefing in the near future,” Schumer told Politico in a statement published Tuesday. “I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement and I support the Corker bill which would allow that to occur.”

But the bigger question is how hard Schumer will push his Democratic colleagues to stand with him against the White House on a grave matter encompassing war and peace. The legislation has 66 Senate supporters — just one shy of a veto-proof majority — including 12 Democrats, some of whom have qualified their support.

Schumer’s office wouldn’t discuss his internal role in the matter but other Senate Democratic aides close to the Iran debate said he could be important.

“I think Chuck Schumer votes for the tough Iran [measures] that the White House won’t love. A ‘no’ vote would be a really hard for him,” said a second Senate Democratic aide. “It’s just counter to who he represents and to his history. And I don’t think being the Democratic leader-in-waiting changes that.”

“But,” the aide said, “I think he’s crafty enough that if there were Democrats on the fence, will he make them feel like they can vote no if he’s voting yes? Maybe. I think it’ll come down to how close you are to 67.”

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., outlines his bipartisan bill requiring congressional review of any comprehensive nuclear agreement that President Barack Obama reaches with Iran, surrounded by GOP leaders. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In order words, Schumer could theoretically support the bill while signaling to fellow Democrats that it’s OK to oppose it. That way he stays true to his position without necessarily thwarting a potentially historic achievement for Obama.

Though many Democrats strongly believe Congress should have a say in the deal, there are a few ways some of those same senators could be persuaded to oppose the bill, aides said. They may decide that the timing is wrong and should wait until the deal is finalized by the end of June. Or Republicans are perceived to be abusing the process to undercut the president, as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has come under fire for, Democrats could make that the basis for voting it down.

“If the Republicans find ways to stop this from becoming a bipartisan process and indicate that they are trying to make politics out of this — if that happens then all bets are off for Democrats,” the second Democratic aide said.

The White House is waging an aggressive lobbying effort to keep lawmakers at bay. Spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that Congress “shouldn’t be voting on a piece of legislation until we have a final agreement at the end of June.” He said many Republicans simply “want to kill the deal. That’s their goal.”

Another notable factor in the debate is the elevation of Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin as top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Cardin is also torn between the White House and a desire for congressional review of the Iran deal. He replaces New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, Obama’s chief Democratic foe on Iran, who stepped aside as he battles federal charges on corruption and bribery.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more sleepless nights before the end of June,” Earnest said, “so we can get this worked out.”

Apart from Schumer and Menendez, Democrats who have cosponsored the Corker bill include Sens. Tim Kaine (VA), Bill Nelson (FL), Joe Donnelly (IN), Heidi Heitkamp (ND) and Angus King (ME), an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

Schumer’s support could give them cover to buck Obama, a third Democratic aide suggested.

“Having somebody like Schumer support this — I think it’s a very positive thing because it comes through that this is not a bill that is anti-administration or anti-diplomacy,” said the aide, adding that some Democrats who support the Corker bill “want to be supportive of an agreement, but on the congressionally-imposed sanctions piece they want to have a role.”

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