How Schumer’s Iran decision played with Senate democrats

On  the evening of August 6th, when the news broke that Senator Charles Schumer would vote against the Iran accord, the Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid, was as stunned as the rest of his caucus.

The two men are close friends. When Reid became the leader, in 2005, Schumer was a backbencher, who mused about running for governor of New York.Reid took an interest in him, came to rely on both his fund-raising prowess with Wall Street and his counsel on a range of matters, and always advised his ambitious protégé, “Be patient, be patient.” Last March, when Reid announced that he would retire at the end of 2016, he endorsed Schumer to succeed him and announced that another contender, Richard Durbin, the Democratic whip (and Schumer’s former roommate), would stand down. For those progressives who questioned whether Schumer should be leader, Reid said that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders would keep the caucus honest. Now, because of Schumer’s position as presumptive leader, Reid felt that Schumer should have informed him of his decision on the Iran deal, given its importance, according to a Senate aide. Still, when a White House official called Reid that night to ask if he would announce his support of the deal to counter Schumer’s opposition, Reid refused, saying he wasn’t ready, a close associate said. (A spokesman for Senator Reid later issued a statement denying that Reid was surprised by Schumer’s announcement. “Their relationship is as close as ever. On Iran, Senator Reid respects the decision of conscience Senator Schumer made and he did not raise concerns with the announcement or the timing.”)*

More than a week has passed, and Reid still wonders why Schumer decided to announce his opposition when he did. Schumer was the first Democratic senator to oppose the deal. And it was his timing, perhaps even more than the substance of his decision, that has upset his pro-deal colleagues and, most unmistakably, the White House. Josh Earnest, the President’s press secretary, said he wouldn’t be surprised if some members of the Senate Democratic caucus “consider the voting record of those who say they would like to lead the caucus,” and he went on to liken Schumer’s decision to oppose the Iran deal to his support for the Iraq War, in 2003. It always seemed implausible that Schumer—an AIPAC stalwart who boasted that he is Benjamin Netanyahu’s best friend on Capitol Hill—would oppose AIPAC and Netanyahu on a deal they both claim is an existential threat to Israel. (I have written about AIPAC’s influence on politicians for the magazine.) “Chuck was always among the least likely Democrats to support the deal,” a longtime close friend of Schumer’s told me. And, after Schumer’s announcement, Durbin said, “I always expected him to be against the agreement.”

But the White House and some of Schumer’s Democratic colleagues strongly urged him not to announce his opposition until late August or early September. Republican leaders have set a vote in mid-September on a resolution to disapprove of the deal. Should that resolution pass, Obama has vowed to veto it. In a move that also surprised his colleagues, Schumer said that he would vote to override Obama’s veto as well. As another Senate staff member told me, “It is protocol, if you’re a member of the leadership who is going to oppose your President on a major issue like this, that you not do so in a way that is going to undercut the President and give the President’s opponents fodder to use against him.” Matt House, a spokesman for Schumer, responded in an e-mail, “Senator Schumer was pressed both on the right and the left on the timing of his decision, but said from the very beginning that after careful deliberation, when he made up his mind, he would announce his decision publicly and explain the reasoning. He finished deliberating on that Wednesday afternoon, wrote his statement that evening, and published it soon after.”

In the days before Schumer’s announcement, momentum for the accord’s approval appeared to be building in the Senate. On Tuesday, August 4th, Barbara Boxer, Tim Kaine, and Bill Nelson announced their support. Two days later, Jeanne Shaheen and Kirsten Gillibrand came out in favor. Opposition to the deal is especially strong in New York and Florida, which have large numbers of Jewish voters, many of them conservative or right-wing on matters related to the Middle East, so Nelson, from Florida, and Gillibrand, from New York, were two senators whom AIPAC and other anti-deal forces were hoping to win. But two days before Gillibrand announced her decision, she attended a meeting with senior diplomats of America’s P5+1 negotiating partners on the deal: China, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany. The meeting, organized by Durbin, who is whipping his colleagues to vote for the deal, was attended by about thirty Democratic senators; Schumer skipped it. “Gillibrand asked each ambassador, If we reject this, what would your government do, in terms of going back for a better deal?” someone at the meeting recalled. “And they each said their government was not interested in any further negotiation with Iran on this subject. That’s the reality. Nonetheless, the basic line that’s been taken byAIPAC is, Go back for a better deal.” That has now become Schumer’s position as well. Gillibrand later said that the meeting helped convince her to support the deal.

After Gillibrand’s announcement, pro-deal forces were ebullient. The tide was strong. Some enjoyed imagining a panic at AIPAC. According to several Senate aides, they believed they were close to having enough votes to block Republicans on the resolution of disapproval itself, so that it would never reach the President and he wouldn’t have to exercise his veto. But hours later Schumer posted his decision online, in the form of a sixteen-hundred-word essay. “What Schumer has done now, unfortunately, is that he has made what was within realistic reach super-difficult,” the first Senate aide said. “By coming out so early, before recess, it’s been really detrimental to the cause of the President and other Senate Democrats who want to be in favor of this deal, because now he’s given a lot of time for senators on the fence to be hit with political attacks like, ‘Why aren’t you where Schumer is? He’s leading; why are you so weak?’ ” The aide continued, “If he wanted to be helpful, as future leader of the caucus, he could have waited. He personally would have had to withstand pressure back home, in exchange for helping out his colleagues. Instead, he said, I’m going to take the pressure off myself and put the pressure on my colleagues.”

On Saturday, that dynamic played out in a full-page ad in the Times—the first, but surely not the last. Featuring side-by-side images of Schumer and Senator Cory Booker, the ad demanded, “Senator Cory Booker: Will you join Senator Schumer and reject the catastrophic Iran deal?” It implored Booker to do so “before Iranian nukes kill millions of Americans.” Among those who funded the ad was the World Values Network, whose executive director, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, is a longtime close friend of Booker but, evidently, not loath to exert intense public pressure. Booker is viewed as undecided.

As of today, twenty Democratic senators have come out in favor of the deal; a total of thirty-four are needed to sustain the President’s veto. “It’s still very much an open question whether we can sustain a veto,” a third Senate aide said. “It will depend on how hard the deal is whipped against within the caucus.” Schumer, by nature an aggressive whip, known for his “full Chuck Schumer” style, is working against Durbin, who chose not to try to contest Reid’s endorsement of Schumer for leader. Schumer’s statements on the subject of his whipping, or not, have been ambiguous. A relentless phone canvasser, he has acknowledged he is making calls to members. “I will certainly share my view and try to persuade them that the vote to disapprove is the right one,” he said, in what might constitute a definition of whipping, but he added that, in the Senate, members make up their own minds—“especially in matters of conscience and great consequence, like this.”

Schumer is a strong tactician. Before making his decision to oppose the accord at the time he did, he almost certainly calculated how it would affect his prospects in the leadership election, in 2016. He must also have given thought to the long-term ramifications of this vote, and how it will affect the fortunes of the Party he plans to lead. At this point, what no one but Schumer (and perhaps AIPAC) seems to know is whether he wants to do all he can, albeit quietly, to kill the deal. If he does, will he try to persuade Harry Reid to join him in opposing it? And what effect might that have on senators, perhaps up for reëlection, facing threats, who are wavering?

This article was written by  Connie Bruck for The New York Times on AUG.17, 2015