Will This Top Democratic Senator Defy Obama on Iran?

Charles Schumer seeks to position himself as the Democrats' leading pro-Israel senator. But will his drive to become the party's leader in the Senate push him to back the president?

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Commuter Zilla Kasimov admires Senator Charles Schumer’s neck tie, as Schumer took a subway ride with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, Thursday, April 9, 2015 in New York.
Commuter Zilla Kasimov admires Senator Charles Schumer’s neck tie, as Schumer took a subway ride with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, Thursday, April 9, 2015 in New York.Credit: AP
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

Call him Schumer Agonistes. As drama builds over U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposed framework for an Iranian appeasement, all eyes are on Charles Schumer. For years New York’s senior senator has sought to position himself as the leading pro-Israel voice in a Democratic Party that grows more conflicted on Israel by the month. The Republicans in the Senate want to defy Obama and enforce tough sanctions on Iran, but Schumer wants to be the next Democratic leader in the upper chamber.

So will he defy the president and stick with Israel and the Republicans? Or will he put ambition over principle and craft a compromise that lets the president escape legislated sanctions?

My prediction is that Schumer is going to cave. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong on this. It would be glorious were he to go to the mat in a struggle with the president over this issue. But more than two decades of watching the Brooklyn Democrat have left me with affection for him personally (it is not reciprocated) but no confidence that he will be there in a fight against his own party leadership, which is, almost by definition, what any Democratic president is.

The first time I glimpsed the Schumer method was in Congress’ maneuvering on the American embassy in Tel Aviv. A group of senators were determined to get the embassy moved to Jerusalem. They were led in part by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had represented Presidents Nixon and Ford as America’s permanent representative at the United Nations. The matter came to a head in 1995. Schumer, then in the House, assured doubters that the mission would be moved by December.

When the Jerusalem Embassy Act was passed, however, it turned out to have an escape clause. It required that the embassy be moved to Jerusalem, but it permitted the president to waive the requirement and to keep renewing the waiver. This dodge was inserted into the bill by another Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. Moynihan died in 2003, and 12 years later, an embassy that should have been moved long ago to Israel’s capital still lurks in Tel Aviv, and neither Schumer nor anyone else makes an issue of it.

Regarding Iran sanctions, this kind of maneuvering has already begun. Clearly Congress doesn’t trust the Iranians —and it doesn’t repose much confidence in President Obama. This is the import of the two bills being advanced to thwart any appeasement. The momentum behind one of the bills, the Menendez-Kirk bill, which would enable sanctions to “snap back” and even toughen them if Iran defaults on its side of the nuclear agreement, has been weakened by the indictment of its leading sponsor, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, on corruption charges

Now the focus has shifted to another measure, known as the Corker Bill, after the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Corker, a Tennessee Republican. His bill seeks merely to force the president to submit any Iran deal to Congress for approval. Senator Schumer emerged among its co-sponsors only late last month. Corker, too, turns out to have a waiver for the president. It can be renewed every 60 days, which means, if the Jerusalem Embassy Act is a precedent, the president can do whatever he wants.

Even with that, though, the Democrats in the Senate are wavering. One of the shrewdest columnists on the Washington scene, Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal, is out with a column this week about Corker’s “fickle friends.” She notes that only a few weeks ago, Corker was “but a few votes shy” of the 67 needed to survive a veto but now the “votes are vanishing.” The problem is the wavering Democrats, who, she writes, have gone into hiding.

This is why so much attention is on Schumer. Plus, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, has announced that he will not stand for re-election in 2016. This opens the way for Schumer to accede as the Democratic leader in the Senate. That could be — if the Democrats recapture a majority in the upper chamber — a position of enormous power. Schumer makes no effort to hide how ardently he dreams of the post, and good for him.

Will his hunger for the promotion make him swing behind Obama at the 11th hour, much as he crumpled on the Jerusalem embassy? Or will he use the fight to demonstrate his capacity as a leader? Or will he dawdle until fate takes a hand?

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