Jewish lawmakers shut out noise as they consider Iran nuclear deal

Sen. Charles Schumer participating in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, July 8, 2015. Schumer, a New York Democrat, is seen as a key vote on the Iran deal. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Turn off the ads, turn down the noise and read, listen and consult.

That’s what five key Jewish lawmakers say they are planning for the five to seven weeks they have to contemplate their vote on the Iran nuclear deal.

There are 28 Jews in Congress, but seven are undecided and in positions of influence as lawmakers consider an agreement that grants Iran sanctions relief in exchange for nuclear restrictions on its nuclear program. Republicans are mostly against the deal, so the focus is on Democrats who would be key to garnering the two-thirds majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate to override President Barack Obama’s promised veto of any resolution of disapproval of a deal.

Democrats traditionally take their cues from members considered closest to a particular issue. In this case, Jewish Democrats, and their leadership on pro-Israel advocacy, make them among the most watched.

A number of groups opposing the deal are running ads in states with large numbers of Jewish Democratic voters, including Florida, New York and California. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., likely to become party leader in the Senate when Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., retires next year, has been targeted in particular by the ads.

Joseph Lieberman, a former senator who is lobbying against the deal, told a New York-area conservative talk radio show that Schumer was “key” and that his nay would open “the way for a lot of other Democrats to oppose it as well.”

Obama spent face time toward the end of last week with a number of leading Jewish lawmakers urging them to back the deal.

For all the pressure, Jewish lawmakers in interviews shared one adamant claim: They will not be rushed, and they will not let the noise get to them.

Rep. Steve Israel answering questions after a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus in Washington, D.C., May 9, 2014. The New York Democrat is chafing at the rush among Republicans to denounce the Iran agreement. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Rep. Steve Israel answering questions after a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus in Washington, D.C., May 9, 2014. The New York Democrat is chafing at the rush among Republicans to denounce the Iran agreement. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“I was one of those members who fought vigorously for a 60-day review period,” said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., noting that Congress has that amount of time to approve or disapprove the deal. “If you’re going to fight for that, the responsible and nonpartisan thing to do is to take that time.”

Israel led his party’s congressional reelection campaign during the last two cycles and chafed at the rush among Republicans to denounce the deal.

Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was looking forward to quiet time alone with his staff in the Sensitive Compartmentalized Information facility where government officials with clearance may review classified materials.

“I don’t like finger pointing and rhetoric,” Engel said. “I look at the agreement and try to make decisions there.”

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he was “really trying to tune out the emotional appeals and figure out what makes the most sense.” Schiff noted Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s likening of the deal to the Holocaust, saying the comments “were singularly unhelpful and made me feel a bit ill.”

JTA spoke with five of the leading Jewish undecideds; Schumer did not return our requests. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, indicated interest in an interview but was unable to make time during the past five days.

The other undecideds who spoke to JTA are Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East subcommittee.

Three Jewish Democrats in leadership have come out in favor of the deal: Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, the chief deputy whip in the House; Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the longest-serving Jewish congressman and the ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee; and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a longtime leader on pro-Israel issues who is retiring, has also indicated she would back the deal.

Israel, whose background is in Jewish organizational activism, said he was relying on his experience.

“What I mostly do is in my DNA,” said the congressman, who was arrested in the 1980s for Soviet Jewry activism.

More tangibly, many of the lawmakers, particularly those with large Jewish constituencies, will be hosting town hall meetings during the August break.

“We’ve got at least four big town halls that we’re planning for soon after we get back” to South Florida in August, said Deutch. “I also know we’ve been setting up meetings with different constituents and different groups who want to come discuss the deal.”

Deutch, who told JTA he was skeptical of the deal, said he could announce his leaning by the end of this week.

Administration officials insist that if Congress rejects a deal, European partners who would be key to reconstituting sanctions would not cooperate. But Deutch isn’t sure that’s the case.

“I don’t want to rely on what we’re told by American officials,” he said. “I want to speak directly with our European friends, and I’ve been doing that.”

Deutch also said lawmakers were consulting one another.

“I want my colleagues to understand how important it is to get past the talking points and to dig into the details,” he said.

Congress members are paying attention to calls from constituents. Schiff said his are running half and half, Deutch and Engel said callers tend to share their concerns about the deal, and Israel said Friday that calls were running 550 for the deal and 300 against.

Cardin did not have a tally, but said the calls were influential. Feedback from constituents, he said, was “one of the factors that go into the political process and it certainly has an impact.”

Like others, the Maryland Democrat said he was also paying close attention to the open hearings, such as the contentious ones that Secretary of State John Kerry and other Cabinet ministers have endured in recent days in the House and Senate, as well as classified briefings.

“I want to fully understand this agreement, whether we are better off with this agreement, of having Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state, and if we walk away what the consequences will be,” he said.

The lawmakers are taking meetings with organizations that oppose the deal, chief among them the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and those who support it.

Schiff said television advertising run by groups backing and opposing the deal won’t influence him.

“When the ad campaigns begin, I’m going to try and tune those out as well,” the California Democrat said. “I don’t think this is something going to be decided by a 30-second ad.”