Only days after Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer announced he would vote against the Iran appeasement, a strange thing has happened — he’s disappeared. It has been said that the most dangerous place in Washington is between Schumer and a television camera. But the senator was absent on the Sunday talk shows that might otherwise have been expected to be a platform for him to explain his decision. He’s nowhere to be found.
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Not to be misunderstood here, I am thrilled that the senator announced, as he did last week, that he would vote against U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan of appeasement. I had been predicting he would eventually swing behind the president, and I’m delighted that he’s decided to stand apart. I’ve called it “Schumer’s finest hour.” It’s particularly so because it puts into at least theoretical jeopardy his chances to emerge as the Democratic leader in the Senate, his lifelong ambition.
That is no small matter, and the speed with which Obama has moved against the number two Democrat in the Senate is breathtaking. As a courtesy to the president, Schumer had gone over to the White House and alerted him in advance of his pending announcement. That was Thursday. The Senator’s game plan was to announce his decision Friday morning and then start making his calls and appearances to explain himself.
The White House could have been understanding, given the angst with which Schumer had wrestled with the decision. Instead, it reacted by alerting the Huffington Post Thursday, undercutting Schumer. Then Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, suggested, as the Washington Post put it, that “lawmakers should question whether Schumer is fit to become the party’s leader in the Senate, saying members may want to 'consider the voting record of those who want to lead the caucus.'"
So why, in the light of all the burning bridges, hasn’t Schumer launched a full campaign to block this deal? Why hasn’t he hit the talk shows and done what the Senate leadership is supposed to do to, well, lead the Senate? That would normally mean twisting arms, bargaining, and trying to get wayward or undecided senators to vote their way. Or even attempting to change the minds of those who have come out on the other side.
The way this is being retailed in New York is that the Senator is prepared to talk to anybody who asks. He himself has characterized it as a vote of “conscience” (unlike the other votes he casts), a situation in which one can’t twist arms in the normal political way. There are those I’ve heard from who find that line unconvincing, to say the least. After all, if it were a matter of conscience and even a life-and-death situation for America and Israel, wouldn’t one feel impelled to spare nothing?
My own theory is that we are not at the real test yet of either Schumer or the Iran pact. The betting is that a majority in the Congress — both houses — is likely to vote against the deal. That, just for the record, would be huge. It would mean that the president would be proceeding against not only the will of a majority of the 50 states that make up the Senate, but also of the American people, as expressed by House of Representatives where voting is apportioned by population.
The president is not totally without standing. He campaigned on, among other things, a promise to reach out to the mullahs. He has a mandate to explore a deal. But if the results he’s brought back are repudiated in either house — never mind both houses — that would be an incredible defeat, particularly with less than a year and a half left in office. It’s hard to think of any presidency ending on such a note since Woodrow Wilson lost the League of Nations.
All that Obama will have on which to base his legacy is his ability to sustain a veto of the first round of Congress’s rejection of the appeasement. This was set up by the Corker legislation, under which the Congress itself turned the constitutional principles of treaty ratification upside down and required a two-thirds majority not to approve but to defeat the Iran appeasement. So the real strategic game here is the veto over-ride vote.
Experience suggests, at least to me, that the big danger is a last-minute dodge, like the waiver Congress gave the president to avoid moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv. Schumer was in the thick of that default. Could there be a waiver or some maneuver now to defuse the constitutional crisis between the Senate and the president over Iran? Maybe there’s a good reason for Mr. Schumer’s silence — he’s on vacation, he’s under the weather, he’s plotting. But if he’s really committed on this, the logic would be to re-engage. This just isn’t a time to stand on ceremony.
Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of The Forward and a former foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal, is editor of The New York Sun.