Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland announced this morning that she will support President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, giving the administration sufficient support in the Senate to ensure a major foreign policy victory for the president in his final 18 months in office.
“No deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime,” Mikulski said in a statement released mid-morning in Washington. “I have concluded that this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb. For these reasons, I will vote in favor of this deal.”
Mikulski’s support caps a summer of lobbying by the White House and the State Department in the face of resolute opposition to the deal by Republicans, many of whom criticized negotiations to begin with and argued the deal would empower Iran’s regional ambitions and ultimately enable Tehran to get nuclear weapons.
In weeks of testimony, briefings, letters and phone calls, Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other senior administration officials argued the deal would constrain Iran’s nuclear program, open the door for further diplomatic progress and delay any decisions about a military confrontation with the mullahs for at least a decade.
Mikulski became the 34th Senator supporting the deal, hardly a resounding victory for the administration’s position—it is the bare minimum number of Senators Obama needs to ensure he can deliver on his end of the deal with Iran. If Obama cannot win another seven fence-sitting Democrats before a vote on disapproving the deal later this month he will have to veto that resolution and rely on the Democrats to prevent being overridden by Congress.
But after nearly three years of intense, sometimes secret negotiations that delivered on Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to try diplomacy instead of military force in the confrontation with Iran, the Senate milestone guarantees him a key legacy victory for his second term, and his presidency.
The administration began its lobbying immediately after inking the deal in July. Secretary of State John Kerry made multiple appearances on Capitol Hill in front of House and Senate committees defending the deal, along with Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. President Obama engaged Jewish groups in an attempt to convince them the deal would not endanger Israel. And he and Kerry personally responded to written and other questions from lawmakers in both chambers of Congress.
Republicans came out hard against the deal from the outset. Influential leaders like Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee expressed early skepticism about the deal’s ability to constrain Iran. But the issue quickly took on a political cast for Republicans, as presidential candidates turned it into a campaign talking-point. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the deal “will make the Obama administration the leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism” because it would lift sanctions on Tehran. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee compared the deal to the Holocaust, saying Obama would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”
That rhetoric may have been more effective as a way of attracting attention on the campaign trail than in convincing Democrats who were genuinely debating the merits of the deal. While Senators Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez came out against the deal, in recent weeks centrists like Chris Coons and Bob Casey came out in favor, laying out detailed arguments for their support. The administration likewise won over Democratic House members from heavily Jewish districts in New York and Florida as the summer wore on.
Administration officials say the Republicans ended up undercutting themselves. “It became clear early on that a lot of Republicans were going to oppose the deal without even reading it or understanding the details,” says a senior administration official. “And a lot of the Republican opposition was offensive and truly partisan in nature,” the official says.
The administration framed the debate as a choice between war or diplomacy, with military options still on the table if Iran broke its commitments and tried to go nuclear. The White House argued that the deal was simply a responsible diplomatic effort that put off a war for at least a decade. That argument gained traction with Mikulski, who said Wednesday that “The military option is always on the table for the United States. We are not afraid to use it. But military action should be the last resort.”
In the case of Mikulski, the administration also had an inside line. Before she became a Senator her chief of staff in the House was Wendy Sherman, who was the lead U.S. negotiator for the administration on the Iran deal. Sherman ran Mikulski’s campaign for the Senate. And the current State department liaison to Capitol Hill is also a former Mikulski staffer who traveled to Vienna last month with the Senator for discussions with nuclear arms inspectors over implementation of the deal.