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How Pelosi rallied Dems behind Iran nuclear deal

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

Sep. 9, 2015

WASHINGTON — Nancy Pelosi is about to deliver what may be the biggest foreign policy win of the Obama presidency.

Her confidence rests in a fat, three-ring binder she held in her hands Wednesday as she sat in her conference room just off the House floor, constituting a virtual firewall preventing both majority Republicans and wavering Senate Democrats from scuttling a historic nuclear deal with Iran.

As House Republicans delayed a vote scheduled Thursday to disapprove the deal amid a last-minute conservative rebellion, inside the binder were more than 125 public statements of support from House Democrats, constructed over months of hand-holding and political orchestration by the former House speaker from San Francisco, now minority leader. As the day progressed Wednesday, the number rose to 135.

That support, in addition to private commitments Pelosi says she has received, would ensure that if Congress approves legislation to defeat the nuclear pact, President Obama’s veto would be sustained. Pelosi needs one-third of the House, or 144 votes, to uphold a veto, a number she said she is sure to have if the vote ever proceeds.

Outside in blazing late-summer Washington heat Wednesday, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican also running for president, and former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin were preparing to rally conservatives against the deal.

U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (C) listens as Rep. George Butterfield (D-NC) (R) speaks during a rally in front of the Capitol September 8, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Leader Pelosi held the event in support of the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former Vice President Dick Cheney had called the pact “madness” at a speech in Washington on Tuesday.

Trump and Cruz were equally scathing.

“We are led by very, very stupid people,” Trump declared at the rally. Cruz warned that “Americans will die, Israelis will die, Europeans will die,” if the agreement goes through.

It was all too late.

Pelosi said the president’s veto, should he even need to wield it given Republican disarray Wednesday, would be sustained, thanks to the “courage” and “humility” of House Democrats. Due in part to Pelosi’s assurances that she had the votes on her side of the Capitol, Senate Democrats on Tuesday had also mustered the 41 votes needed to block the disapproval legislation in that chamber.

Overcoming opposition

If Congress does nothing, the deal will take effect Sept. 17.

Pelosi is about to prevail on the Iran deal over unanimous opposition from majority Republicans in the House and Senate, intense lobbying pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the powerful Israeli lobby, and U.S. polling that shows nearly half the public disapproves of the proposed agreement.

She did it by leveraging a shrunken Democratic minority. Throughout the summer, as media attention was focused on the presidential race, Pelosi engineered a long campaign, joined by the White House, to win over wavering House Democrats.

She set up briefings with top administration officials and foreign diplomats from allied countries that are party to the pact. She enlisted outside support from the nation’s top nuclear physicists, former military officials and other voices of authority. She had members who came out in support of the deal, including Rep. Eric Swalwell of Dublin and Mark DeSaulnier of Concord, publish detailed op-eds in their local papers to explain their positions.

Emphasizing her record

In arguing her case, Pelosi cited her record-breaking tenure of more than two decades on the House Intelligence Committee and career-long interest in stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, insisting that the deal turned out better than she expected and is vital to preventing war with Iran.

Pelosi dismissed Wednesday’s rebellion by House conservatives who demanded that a vote to disapprove the deal be delayed over concern about “side deals” between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Republicans and conservative media argued that these would allow Iran to inspect one of its own nuclear sites, an issue that nuclear arms experts have widely dismissed. Some Republicans hope that allegations about the side deals will cause Democrats now supporting the deal to jump ship.

“That’s cute, as they say in Texas,” Pelosi said, emphasizing the “u” in “cute.”

OK with not voting

It’s fine if Republicans delay a vote on their own bill, a vote they would win, Pelosi said. “If they don’t want to have the vote, they don’t have to have the vote,” she said.

With that, she gathered the two copper sculptures of Franciscan monks she bought on a recent trip to Havana and hauled out during a discussion of Pope Francis’ visit to Washington later this month, when he will canonize Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan missionary who established California’s fabled missions.

Regardless of what Republicans do, she said, the Iran deal will go through as scheduled next week. Terminating the discussion to laughter in the room, Pelosi said, “I’m going to take my monks and ... walk on outta here.”

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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