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How Chuck Schumer could sink the Iran nuclear deal

Chuck Schumer.
Chuck Schumer.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Officially, Barack Obama is still the president of the United States, but watching the politics around the Iran nuclear deal, you might get the impression that Sen. Chuck Schumer is leading the free world this week.

The reason is this: Schumer has become perhaps the most important person in deciding whether the Iran deal can get past Congress. If two-thirds or more of each house of Congress votes to oppose the Iran deal, that would kill it. If they don't, the deal will proceed.

That means the vote is effectively decided by a relatively small number of Democrats who could vote either way. Of those swing votes, Schumer is probably the most important and most influential. He is a pro-Israel Democrat from New York. He is also very important in both his party and in the Senate, where he will take over as Democratic leader after 2016.

So what Schumer does here matters a great deal. He insists he is still undecided, but there are plenty of tea leaves to read suggesting he has already made up his mind (the tea leaves, as they often do, offer contradictory guidance on which way he'll vote). Here's why Chuck Schumer is your de facto president on the Iran deal for the moment, what it means, and what we know about how he'll vote.

Why Chuck decides

Congress, my colleague Andrew Prokop has written, will probably not kill the Iran deal. It would require a lot of Democrats to vote against their president on his legacy foreign policy achievement, which is possible but seems unlikely.

So assume that the most likely, default scenario is that Congress makes a big deal out of passing a measure formally disapproving of the Iran deal. Obama will veto it, and then Congress will fail to secure the necessary two-thirds majority to override his veto.

This way, Congress doesn't have to own the nuclear deal ("we voted against it!"), thus allowing them to avoid any blame if the deal turns out to be a disaster. But they can also avoid killing the deal, which would require them to take the blame for any consequences that causes.

The whole thing is perfectly constructed to give Congress just enough of a role to avoid political blame without requiring substantive foreign policy contributions. However, there is one way in which those incentives might get screwy: If it starts to look like Congress is going to get the two-thirds majority to kill the deal after all, and if it looks like killing the deal will become politically popular, then lawmakers will have an incentive to join the "winning side" and vote against the deal.

If it does happen, the road to such an outcome almost certainly runs through Chuck Schumer's office. Schumer turning against the Iran deal is probably the one thing that would be most likely to open a floodgate of Democratic opposition.

How Chuck could make or break the Iran deal

If Schumer votes to oppose the deal, that will send a signal to other Democrats that it's safe for them to oppose the deal as well. Somewhat freed from the bonds of party loyalty, many might do that, especially in the Senate; the deal is controversial, and no one wants to take the blame if it falls apart or becomes politically toxic.

A Schumer "no" vote would also make it harder for Democrats to take a stand in support of the deal. Schumer has strong "pro-Israel" credentials. If this prominent Democrat comes out and declares the deal bad for Israel, other Democrats are going to feel pressure not to contradict him.

A Schumer endorsement of the deal would have the opposite effect. Other Democratic senators are going to be less likely to defy both their president and their soon-to-be Senate leadership. Schumer's pro-Israel credentials make it easier for Dems to support the deal and position themselves as pro-Israel as well. And the fact that he has held out his decision for so long — thus positioning himself as the cautious skeptic — means that if he ultimately comes around, the political narrative will be "even well-known Iran deal skeptic Chuck Schumer is convinced." That will provide some real political momentum.

In either scenario, this really boils down to two issues: political taboos (you don't defy your president on a major issue ... unless everyone is doing it) and inevitability (people will want to avoid a politically painful vote against the crowd). Schumer, more than anyone, can set both of those.

So which way is Chuck leaning?

Schumer insists that he hasn't decided. But, clearly relishing how important this has made him, he's dropped a number of hints. Almost all of those hints have to do with whether or not the nuclear deal is on-net good for Israel, an issue that Schumer by all appearances earnestly and deeply cares about, and on which he tends to lean in a more conservative direction.

The evidence that Schumer will oppose the deal was amassed in a recent Politico story, based on interviews with mostly (but not entirely) anonymous sources on Capitol Hill who think he'll vote no. One of the on-record sources was Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, who pointed out that if Schumer wanted the deal to pass he would have started lobbying for it months ago. Holding out creates a sense of political controversy, and has left space for a few other Democrats to publicly come out against the deal.

The case that Schumer will support the deal tends to center on a private June meeting Schumer held with a conservative Jewish group, the Orthodox Union, which was filmed (apparently covertly) on a cellphone camera. In the meeting, Schumer constructed an elaborate argument for how he thought about the Iran deal. Here is how Seth Lipsky wrote it up:

He imagined a hypothetical agreement that had a 95 percent chance of ensuring that Iran would not get an A-bomb.

"If you are president of the United States, president of one of the European countries or an American, an average American, you say that’s pretty good to me," he said. But since a nuclear Iran would be an existential threat to Israel, he suggested, there’s another perspective.

"If you’re prime minister of Israel or an Israeli citizen or for that matter an American Jew or at least some American Jews," he said, "you say I can’t live with a 5 percent chance that Israel will be annihilated." So "there is a basic difference in viewpoint."

As Lipsky says, this sounds like a case to make if you're trying to prime your audience to see why you might support the Iran deal. The theory of the deal he described is not really correct — the odds of Iran getting a bomb in the absence of a nuclear deal are almost certainly much higher — but that's not the point. The point is that his talk sounded like it was designed to use pro-Israel language that would suggest sympathy for Israel and its criticisms of the deal, but still ultimately come down in favor of supporting it.

And then there is the third option: that Schumer will vote against the nuclear deal, but only as a symbolic gesture, and only if he knows that Congress won't kill the deal.

That's what James Fallows thinks will happen:

Schumer doesn’t put it this way, but obviously he is hoping that one of those spare votes [against a deal that otherwise passes] will be his. His life will be easier in many ways—in minimizing hassle during his upcoming reelection run in New York, and thus maximizing his efforts to help other Democratic candidates so that he has a chance of becoming Senate majority rather than minority leader—if he doesn’t have to spend time explaining away a vote for the deal to his conservative and AIPAC-aligned constituents. If the deal goes through despite Schumer’s opposition, people who support the deal won’t care, and those who oppose it can blame evil Barack rather than valiant Chuck.

This theory would certainly help explain why Schumer has held out for so long. If he wanted to be a champion for the deal, he would've announced his support already. If he wanted to kill it, he would've announced his opposition early, before other on-the-fence Democrats came out in support. Holding back makes sense if he does not actually want to determine the vote's outcome, something he could have played a much larger role in doing. It makes sense, more specifically, if he wants to vote against the deal, or cast an ostentatiously hesitant vote for it, but does not want it to actually fail.

I can't say for sure that I know which way he's leaning. But it does seem likely that whatever he'll do, he may have already reached his decision on it. Yesterday, Senate Democrats held a meeting on the details of the Iran deal with ambassadors from the six world powers that negotiated the deal. It was exactly the sort of meeting you'd want to attend if you were a Senate Democrat who was on the fence. Schumer skipped it.