POLITICO -- Behind Pelosi’s Iran deal campaign
For weeks, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been penning handwritten, personalized thank you notes to the nearly 150 House Democrats who publicly backed President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
The personal touch caps a months-long behind the scenes campaign by the California Democrat, who has worked hard to ensure the survival of the crowning foreign policy achievement of Obama’s second term. And it came just months after Pelosi’s relationship with the president hit a low point when she rallied opposition against his push for a sweeping free trade agreement.
In an interview with POLITICO on Thursday, Pelosi said she worked hand-in-glove with the White House, pinpointing skeptical Democrats and helping to make sure Obama called them all. It was a marked shift for congressional Democrats, many of whom have complained that the president hasn’t done enough over the last 7 years to build relationships. In the end, fewer than two dozen House Democrats ended up voicing opposition to the deal.
“All I was looking for was winning,” Pelosi said inside her Capitol office, adding that “Members by-and-large believed in diplomacy, giving it a chance, so it was a question of having people coming to their own conclusion.”
“The only question I asked when calling people was ‘do you have the information you need?’”
Her aggressive whipping operation mustered enough Democratic support in the House to effectively hamstring GOP opposition to the nuclear accord before it could ever really get off the ground. In July, just days after Obama unveiled the accord, Pelosi announced that House Democrats could sustain a presidential veto of legislation that would kill the deal.
And just like that, much of the drama around GOP legislation aimed at killing the deal began to drain away.
Top Republicans, like House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and well-funded opponents like The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, had little time to build any real momentum behind opposing the deal, as House Democrats stacked up support throughout August, all but assuring the pact’s survival.
“There was probably no one in Congress, in either house, who was more actively engaged on this than the leader,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and top target for the White House who ended up supporting the deal in early August. “I think it further burnished her relationship with the caucus because she was enormously respectful of those in the caucus that reached a contrary conclusion.”
He added, “I do think it reinforced for the administration again what an unparalleled ally they have.”
During the August recess, Pelosi sent Obama a list of 57 lawmakers that the president needed to personally call to secure their support. Senior Democratic aides said he called them all.
And she ensured that lawmakers who came out early in support of the deal were properly thanked by the White House.
When the administration gave her a manifest for their Labor Day flight back to D.C. from Massachusetts, for example, Pelosi said they should add Rep. Ann Kuster to the list as the New Hampshire Democrat also used Logan International as her neighborhood airport. Kuster had announced her support just days before.
Members, many whom asked to speak on background to discuss internal whip operations candidly, said Pelosi spent much of the five-week August recess reaching out to members on Iran. It was a central topic of conversation for lawmakers who gathered in Napa for her annual issues retreat over August.
It was clear, these Democrats said, that the White House and Pelosi were working jointly. Senior administration officials including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Secretary of State John Kerry would often know what a particular lawmaker’s concern was before the member even had a chance to voice them in one-on-one phone calls. It helped, senior Democratic aides said, that the point person from the White House’s congressional liaison office was also a former top Pelosi staffer, Amy Rosenbaum.
Obama, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other top administration officials stayed in close contact with Pelosi and her team over the recess – orchestrating a team that helped House Democrats send out statements of support from new members almost daily during a time when news grinds to a halt in D.C.
“[The White House was] really excellent. They have gotten to know the members better and the members have not been shy. They have initiated inquires to the White House about one aspect of the agreement or another,” Pelosi said.
Ultimately, Obama didn’t need to rely on House Democrats to protect the deal. Senate Democrats voted on Thursday to block a measure of disapproval from coming to the floor, in effect halting that chamber’s effort to stop the agreement. The House is expected to vote on Friday on an approval resolution along with measures criticizing the Obama administration for failing to provide Congress with so-called side deals between Iran and an independent nuclear watchdog agency.
But without action in the Senate, nothing the House passes will have any impact on the nuclear deal, which is set to go into effect on Sept. 17 – though Boehner has not ruled out future litigation on the nuclear agreement.
Even with the agreement secured, Pelosi is still working to ensure a drama-free vote. During a closed-door meeting with House Democrats whipping for the Iran deal, Pelosi said she spoke with Boehner Wednesday to urge him to scrap plans to hold the vote Friday on the anniversary of the 9/11 terroirs attacks. Instead she urged him to follow the Senate’s lead and vote Thursday.
Pelosi, who has repeatedly compared the Iran vote to her vote against the Iraq War authorization, said it is important that world leaders see the overwhelming Democratic support for the deal given strong Republican antipathy to the agreement. A strong showing from Democrats would help assure the international community that the US plans to stick by the deal.
Republicans have argued Obama gave away too much to an untrustworthy Iran. On Thursday, Boehner said Thursday that the deal is "worse than anything I could've ever imagined."
“This Iran deal is bad for Israel and bad for America,” Speaker Boehner said. “Everywhere I’ve gone the last six weeks, the issue I heard most about was the President’s terrible plan for allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons,” he said in a separate statement.
For her part, Pelosi said the lack of support for the Iran deal among Republicans is “disappointing.” Not a single GOP lawmaker has announced their support of the nonproliferation agreement, which also lifts a series of sanctions against Iran.
“It was stunning. I’m rarely surprised around here but I would say it is disappointing that with so many diplomats of no political [affiliation] and some are Republicans…putting forth strong statements that their wouldn’t be one [congressional Republican] who would say ‘let me objectively take a look at this,” Pelosi said.
Roughly 20 Democrats have come out against the deal, many of them from districts with heavily Jewish populations that align with Israel – which has voiced strong opposition to the negotiations with Tehran.
But members said despite overwhelming pressure from Pelosi and Obama to support the deal, the California Democrat told ardent supporters that the caucus needed to remain civil and respect those lawmakers who couldn’t support the agreement. Still, it’s clear that Pelosi is not going to quietly allow Democrats to bash Obama’s work.
On Thursday she tussled on the House floor with Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, over speaking time. Engel is opposed to the deal and was offering tough criticism of Obama’s negotiations when Pelosi rapped him for going over time.