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An odd silence among Senate Dems on Iran

The White House has invited the entire Senate Democratic caucus to meet privately with the president on Wednesday evening, a Dem aide confirms, adding that Dems expect one of the topics to be Iran.

Which raises a question: Where are all the Senate Democrats on the bill to impose sanctions on Iran that is being pushed by Senators Robert Menendez and Chuck Schumer? How many of them are really prepared to support this bill, and how many oppose it? By my count, more than half the Democratic caucus have been mum on where they stand.

Will the announcement that the six month deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program is moving forward undercut the momentum of those pushing for a new sanctions bill? The White House says such a bill could derail negotiations and make war more likely, right at the moment when the process is showing preliminary signs of working.

Right now, the current count of Senators who are co-sponsoring the Iran sanctions bill is at 58, with 16 Democratic Senators supporting it. Meanwhile, 10 Democratic committee chairs have come out against the bill. Harry Reid is said to be against it, too. That leaves nearly 30 Senate Dems unaccounted for.

The basic storyline in recent days has been that the pro-sanctions-bill side is gaining in numbers, while the anti-sanctions-bill side hasn’t — even though the White House has been lobbying Dems very aggressively to back off on this bill, on the grounds that it could imperil the chances for a historic long-term breakthrough with Iran. As Josh Rogin puts it, “the White House’s warnings have had little effect.”

We’re very close now to the 60 votes it needs to pass. The Dem leadership has no plans to bring it to the floor, but there are other procedural ways proponents could try to force a vote. And if the numbers in favor of the bill continue to mount, it could increase pressure on Harry Reid to move it forward. Yes, the president could veto it if it did pass. But we’re actually not all that far away from a veto-proof majority. And in any case, having such a bill pass and get vetoed by the president is presumably not what most Democrats want to see happen.

So it’s a bit puzzling that we’ve heard so little from Senate Dems who might be inclined to support the White House in holding the line against the sanctions bill right now.

Peter Beinart had a great piece the other day arguing that the antiwar left is not bringing the necessary pressure to bear on Senate Democrats to oppose this measure:

A few years ago, the backlash against such a bill would have been deafening…But back then, rank and file Democrats were still shaking with rage over Iraq. Over the last few years, the winding down of George W. Bush’s wars plus the financial crisis and rise of the Tea Party has radically reoriented the left’s focus. It’s a sign of the times that the party’s hottest star, Elizabeth Warren, is an anti-Wall Street crusader with no distinct foreign policy views whatsoever.  […]
polls show that Democrats overwhelmingly back Obama’s Iran policy.  The more these senators are forced to publicly defend their positions on Iran, the more politically costly those positions will become. What we don’t know is whether the left can generate a movement strong enough to force that public debate….The American left is very good at punishing politicians for supporting disastrous wars. Its challenge in 2014 is to show that it can stop politicians from promoting those wars in the first place.

Now, it’s possible that you may hear more Dems come out against the sanctions bill after meeting with Obama on Wednesday.

What’s more, there is another way to look at this. Perhaps the fact that so many Senate Dems have been silent on this carries hidden benefits for the White House. In this telling, these Democrats are inclined to give the White House the space it needs to try to make negotiations with Iran work; by staying silent, a large chunk of Democrats are signaling they are not on board with the sanctions bill.

But we really don’t know either way. And even if this were the case, this conspicuous public silence — even as the White House is making a very public plea for Dems to stand down, and even as large majorities of Americans support the current nuclear deal — is a sign of just how cautious Dems are being about the domestic politics of negotiating with Iran right now.