Obama's Iran Deal Will Survive As 34th Senator Announces Support

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) gives the president the votes he needs to beat back legislation to kill the deal.

09/02/2015 10:12 am ET | Updated Sep 02, 2015

WASHINGTON -- A nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers that promises to fundamentally alter the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and beyond will not die in the U.S. Congress.

On Wednesday, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) announced that she would support the agreement, becoming the 34th member of the Senate to do so. In offering her backing, Mikulski, who is retiring in 2016, assured that President Barack Obama will dodge a Republican-led effort to kill the deal. Although a resolution of disapproval may still pass the chamber, the White House now has the necessary support to sustain a presidential veto of said resolution. 

“No deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime. I have concluded that this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb," Mikulski said in a statement. "For these reasons, I will vote in favor of this deal. However, Congress must also reaffirm our commitment to the safety and security of Israel.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Senate's longest-serving female member and a prominent Israel supporter, backs the Iran nuclear deal. 

With the deal now seemingly safe from congressional torpedoing, Obama has both notched one of the most significant nuclear non-proliferation agreements in history and cemented a foreign policy legacy of robust diplomatic engagement. Whether that legacy turns out sterling or sour will be determined well beyond the end date of his presidency.

Under the deal, Iran would be subjected to comprehensive inspections on its nuclear program and forced to reduce current uranium stockpiles and the number of its centrifuges. In exchange, it will be granted sanctions relief estimated to be anywhere between $50 billion and $150 billion. But the deal phases out between years 10 and 15, albeit with Iran still forced to provide some access for inspections for another 10 years thereafter. And even for supporters of the initiative, concerns remain about the possibilities of a quick military breakout once restrictions ease.  

"That's the core concern," Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said in an interview with The Washington Post when announcing his support for the deal Tuesday. "All they've got to do is be really patient."

Faced with this pushback, the administration has implored lawmakers to consider the alternative, in which no restrictions are placed on Iran and the world community is unwilling to rework the accord. A briefing between ambassadors and officials from the other countries party to the deal -- in which they articulated their reluctance to head back to the negotiating table -- was highly persuasive to several Democratic senators.

While the passage of the deal is now secure, its long-term viability is not. Nearly all of the Republican presidential candidates have pledged to end the deal should they win the office. And though that seems to be more of a campaign applause line than thought-out foreign policy, the politics of the accord are difficult to predict or interpret. Public opinion polls in July alone showed support varying from 33 percent to 56 percent. Opponents have been better funded, running millions of dollars in television ads during the August recess to convince Democrats to jump ship. But that campaign has had, seemingly, only a marginal effect.

So far just two Senate Democrats have announced their opposition. And both Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) were seen as skeptics of the deal from the outset. That said, Democrats could find themselves in an odd proposition in which the vast majority of the party supports the deal except their incoming Senate leader (Schumer), their likely next House leader (Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland remains undecided), and the chair of the Democratic National Committee (Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida is undecided too).

That could explain the timing of Mikulski's announcement. The Maryland Democrat is a strong symbolic choice to bring the vote tally for the agreement to the critical 34. She is the chamber's longest-serving female member and a prominent Israel supporter -- the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has lobbied heavily against the deal, called her "a stalwart supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship." And her backing could foreshadow forthcoming support from another critical member: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a fellow Marylander who is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Indeed, at this juncture, Democratic leadership is gunning to get to 41 supportive members, which would prevent a resolution of disapproval from even making it to Obama's desk, should they choose to filibuster it.

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