Marc Caputo: Wasserman Schultz wants to talk NJ bridge scandal, not Iran sanctions splitting Dems

01/19/2014 5:22 PM

01/19/2014 10:14 PM

Debbie Wasserman Schultz trashed New Jersey’s “scandal plagued” governor for hiding out from the press as he raised funds for Gov. Rick Scott in Florida.

“Chris Christie,” the Democratic National Committee chairwoman said Saturday, “doesn’t want to be answering any uncomfortable questions.”

However, the same is true for Wasserman Schultz.

The Weston congresswoman doesn’t want to respond to any uncomfortable questions about a Democratic revolt over President Barack Obama’s nuclear-disarmament talks with Iran.

Since December, Obama and Wasserman Schultz have been playing defense over the bipartisan Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013.

Backed by Israel, conservatives and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the bill is supported by as many as 16 Senate Democrats. It was co-introduced by Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey (what’s up with the Garden State?).

The White House has equated Menendez’s legislation to risky war-mongering. Supporters say it’s designed to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

The Democratic division is notable. So is the relative silence on Israel from one of the nation’s most-prominent Jewish politicians.

“We’re not here to talk about that today,” Wasserman Schultz said before her Saturday Dania Beach press conference, following one in Orlando, that was devoted to criticizing Christie amid reports that his allies exacted political revenge on a rival by shutting down access to a New Jersey-New York bridge.

Wasserman Schultz also highlighted the mayor of Hoboken’s new claim that Christie’s administration threatened to withhold Tropical Storm Sandy aid if her city didn't approve a certain development project.

It makes sense for her to bash Christie: Polls show he’s a leading 2016 GOP White House contender. And, as the new Republican Governors Association chairman, he was raising money this weekend for the embattled Scott, who's on the ballot this year.

Still, compared to Menendez’s Iran bill, Christie’s northeast-bridge scandal isn't as important to her party, her constituents and the nation right now.

The proposal, designed to dismantle and disrupt Iran's “illicit nuclear infrastructure” and dissuade it from terrorism, surfaced just as Obama appeared to be making headway with Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program.

The White House and Iran say the Senate’s proposal could scuttle a tentative nuclear agreement in the works. The nuclear talks were prompted by tough Obama-era sanctions that brought the state-sponsor of terror to the negotiating table, for which Wasserman Schultz voted.

Supporters say it’s designed to strengthen the president’s hand and the security of Israel.

Facts aside, the legislation puts Wasserman Schultz in the toughest of spots.

It’s dividing some Jewish voters, who make up a major part of her district, and putting her in the crosshairs of some pro-Israel groups who count her as a reliable ally. And it’s splitting members of the party she chairs.

Conservatives and Republicans overwhelmingly support the legislation. At one point, it was one senator shy of the magic 60 needed to move most legislation in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Last week, it appeared to stall.

Wasserman Schultz has spoken privately about the issue and has lobbied to defeat more sanctions, the conservative Washington Free Beacon first reported earlier this month.

Citing the Free Beacon report, the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel — a longtime critic of the congresswoman — ran TV ads against Wasserman Schultz in South Florida last week.

When asked whether Wasserman Schultz was “blocking sanctions,” as the ad alleged, her office denied it in a written Jan. 10 statement that said:

“Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been a strong supporter of sanctions against Iran and will continue to be. She has cosponsored and voted for the additional sanctions bill that has already passed the House.

“Currently, there is not a resolution on sanctions offered in the House. As soon as one is filed, she will review the language, as she does with any legislation and decide whether it helps to ensure that Iran will never have a nuclear weapon.”

Then Wasserman Schultz trashed the sanctions bill when she spoke to fellow House Democrats at the White House, The Huffington Post reported last week.

So before Saturday’s press conference criticizing Christie, I sought clarification by asking directly about sanctions and the Huffington Post report about the closed-door meeting, which she refused to discuss because it was part of a classified discussion.

“It was a classified briefing in the situation room in the White House that the White House invited members over to. That’s what it was,” she said.

“You have everything else,” an aide chimed in.

Actually, I said, I didn’t have everything.

“And you have everything else,” said Wasserman Schultz.

The rest of the Q-and-A with the congresswoman, while amicable, was all bob and weave:

Q: Is it fair to say you had advocated . . .

A: It’s fair to say I’m not going to talk about a classified briefing in the situation room in the White House.

Q: Got that. Got that. But have you advocated to Democrats, either publicly or privately, not to back the Menendez measure . . .

A: What’s fair to say is I have done everything through my career to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon to match and will continue to have that. . . . I’m all done.

Q: No. . . . Do you see a measure of irony in you saying Chris Christie is dodging questions [but] while I’m asking about this other issue . . .

A: I have been answering questions for 10 days. [Note: not really]

Q: But not to me . . .

A: You’ve been given the statement. . . . I don’t have anything to add.

Q: What’s wrong with Menendez’s [legislation]?

A: I’m not a member of the United States Senate. I won’t be voting on the Menendez bill.

Q: So you think it’s fine? You think other Democrats should vote for it?

A: I’m a member of the House of Representatives.

Q: But you’re the DNC chair, too.

A: Yeah. But I’ll be covering what I have a chance to vote on.

What Wasserman Schultz didn’t say: She’s making sure she’ll never have to vote on it by helping kill it behind the scenes and saying nothing about it publicly.

About Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo

@MarcACaputo

Marc Caputo is the Miami Herald's political writer. Hailing from Key West, he graduated from the University of Miami.

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