TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A looming vote on a nuclear deal with Iran, one of President Barack Obama’s top priorities, has Florida Democrats in a bind.
More than a month after Obama announced the agreement, veteran U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is Florida’s sole Washington lawmaker openly backing the plan.
Other Democrats — including U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who also serves as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee — are biding their time. Exceptions are U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch and Alcee Hastings, who condemned the accord.
Pushed by progressives, who say the deal will diminish the prospects of another war in the Middle East, the proposal has divided Jewish voters who comprise large portions of some South Florida districts represented by Democrats, such as Boca Raton’s Deutch.
The issue forces Democrats to choose between backing the lame-duck president — and many of their base progressive voters — and an influential segment of the Jewish community with deep pockets that has lined up against the plan.
“Nobody likes to antagonize the group that has been the most pro-Democratic white group in the electorate, which is Jews. So if you’re a Democrat, there are some strategic issues,” said University of Florida political-science professor Kenneth Wald, a former director of the school’s Center for Jewish Studies.
Nelson, who came out early in support of the deal, called it “one of the most important votes that I will cast” in his 14 years in the Senate.
But for Mike Moskowitz, an influential Jewish donor and fundraiser who hosted an event for Hillary Clinton at his Parkland home earlier this year, the vote should not be a hard one.
“There are very few times when you serve in Congress that you are going to have to stand up and cast a true vote of conscience, of critical importance. Not your party, but your conscience. This is one of those circumstances. The Iran deal should be opposed. They should vote against it,” Moskowitz said. “Those that do not really take into consideration the ramifications of this deal with support, it is going to come back to harm them.”
The Republican-controlled U.S. House and Senate are poised to pass a resolution next month disapproving the accord struck by Obama and five other nations with Iran. The president has vowed to veto the resolution. A veto override, which would kill the deal, would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers, something that even the proposal’s harshest critics admit is dubious at best.
The pact, aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining or developing nuclear weapons, would allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Iran’s nuclear assets and would lift economic sanctions against the country. It has the unanimous blessing of the United Nations Security Council.
Democrats who haven’t already staked out a position are coming under increasing pressure from both sides on the issue.
An offshoot of the powerful American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, is prepared to spend $20 million on a campaign to get Congress to undo the agreement.
J-Street, another influential pro-Israel group based in Washington, supports the proposal.
On Thursday, the progressive Americans United for Change unleashed television ads in a handful of cities — including Miami and Deutch’s West Palm Beach media market — urging support for the agreement.
At a town hall meeting in his district this week, Deutch’s constituents dumped criticism and heaped praise on the congressman for his position on the Iran deal.
“It’s important to say that the American Jewish community is not on the whole against this. Clearly, there are divisions,” Wald said. “So anybody who has to think about elections has to be aware of this. I know that in heavily Jewish districts, Jews probably are significant campaign contributors, so it may be that the very people who are opposed to this are more significant to their representatives’ voting choices.”
Nelson, the only current Democrat elected statewide, won’t be on the ballot again for three years, and although he has said he will seek re-election, some insiders question whether the 72-year-old will hang up his hat at the end of his current term.
Backing the plan won’t hurt Nelson if he does decide to run again, Wald predicted.
And other Florida Democrats likely won’t suffer if they support the proposal in what will probably turn out to be a “symbolic vote” in the House, he said.
“I don’t see this issue having legs, even a year and a half from now,” he said.
The political science professor echoed the view of Nelson, Obama and others who contend that the Iran agreement is the best option available, and the most likely to avoid warfare.
But, Wald acknowledged, a treaty with a country that has threatened to eviscerate Israel is chilling for many people whose parents or grandparents were Holocaust survivors or victims.
“This issue is particularly tricky for a Jewish audience,” he said. “One thing Jews have learned historically is that when somebody starts raving about wanting to kill all the Jews, it’s very easy and tempting to dismiss this as just for street cred or a statement that has no consequences. But what many Jews learned from Hitler is that when somebody talks like that, they’re going to try to act on it.”
But, even if a majority of Jewish voters back the deal, “the ones that are opposed to it are some of the most active and influential in politics,” said Florida Atlantic University political-science professor Kevin Wagner.
“So it’s not just a raw numbers game. It’s a little more subtle,” he said.
Moskowitz, a longtime supporter of Nelson, blasted the senator for “the speed with which” Nelson came out in favor of the plan before hearing from his constituents.
“Every member of Congress should be taking the time to reach out to their community. … As to whether or not they will be held accountable in upcoming elections, I can’t tell you. But I will not financially support any member of Congress who votes in favor,” he said.
Joining Wasserman Schultz, Democratic U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel, Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy have not staked out positions on the deal. Grayson and Murphy are battling for the Democratic nomination in a 2016 race for the U.S. Senate.
“As I have said from the beginning, no deal is better than a bad deal, particularly given Iran’s horrific track-record of deception and continued facilitation of terrorism against the United States and our allies worldwide,” Wasserman Schultz, whose job as DNC chairwoman is to support the president and his agenda, said in a statement released shortly after the deal was announced last month.
Wasserman Schultz said she would “be carefully assessing its provisions and implications” before deciding how to vote.
Waiting is wise, said Wald.
“We have good research on relationships between elected officials and their constituents which shows that you can in fact vote in a way that is unpopular provided that you have a good relationship with your constituents beforehand and that you can explain your vote in a certain way,” he said. “If I were advising, I would advise them not to announce early but to go through this process. And frankly it’s also possible that some of them are getting certain commitments, or inducements, as is normal in politics.”
The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.