U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is facing one of the toughest decisions of her career: vote for President Barack Obama’s key Iran deal and risk alienating part of her base. Or vote against the deal, and risk having her loyalty questioned as head of the Democratic National Committee.
On Thursday, one of the Iran deal’s key supporters, Vice President Joe Biden, will meet with her and Jewish leaders in South Florida to push the president’s proposal at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie.
Wasserman Schultz, whose district runs from western Broward to Miami Beach, has not said whether she supports the agreement. But the Weston Democrat arranged the meeting, which suggests she wants the White House and Jewish leaders to hear each other’s opinions about the deal — even though by this point many have already staked out their position.
Wasserman Schultz turned down a Miami Herald request for an interview about the Iran meeting with Biden. Only a portion of the meeting, likely statements by Biden and Wasserman Schultz, will be public.
“There are a number of questions and concerns that I have, along with my constituents and community leaders, about the agreement negotiated with the P5+1 nations and Iran,” she said in a prepared statement, “and given his extensive experience in the foreign policy arena and his intimate knowledge of the negotiations, I believe Vice President Biden can be an effective representative to respond to those questions.”
Her allies say that this could be the toughest policy decision she has ever made.
“For Debbie this will be the most important vote she will take as a member of Congress,” said former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Hollywood, who lives part-time in Israel and has been Wasserman Schultz’s mentor — and opposes the deal. “I’ve never lobbied her on an issue. This is the first time I am talking to her trying to influence her. There is no issue she has faced in the last 11 years that is as important.”
Two Democratic South Florida members of Congress — Ted Deutch of Boca Raton and Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach — are against the deal, while Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach remains undecided. But much more is at stake for Wasserman Schultz, who is expected in her DNC role to back President Barack Obama’s policies.
As of Wednesday, supporters of the Iran deal secured the necessary votes in the Senate to uphold Obama's veto if he needs to use one after a vote expected later this month. The agreement will stand if it gains support of one-third of lawmakers in either chamber, since two-thirds majorities in both would be needed to override a veto of a disapproval resolution, the Associated Press reported.
On Wednesday, Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski became the 34th senator to commit to vote for the deal. Although many Republicans oppose the deal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, acknowledged that his side would not be able to block the deal since Obama now has enough votes.
Biden has extensive foreign policy experience as a former head of the Senate foreign relations committee. So for Wasserman Schultz, the benefit of the meeting is that it “brings one of the most knowledgeable resources in the country to her district to share information and exchange ideas about what is and is not in the deal,” said Stephen Bittel, a longtime Jewish leader in Miami-Dade and DNC member who supports the Iran deal.
Wasserman Schultz’s ultimate position won’t affect her re-election in her reliably liberal district. But if she comes out against of the Iran deal, it will create an awkward situation for her as DNC chair, a position she has held since 2011. She has been a loyal voice of support for Obama nationwide — she voted in support of the president’s position 97 percent of the time in 2014, according to Congressional Quarterly.
So far, it’s been easy for her to support Obama’s positions because she shares his beliefs, said former U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton. But this time it could be different.
“This one is difficult because she has very strong personal beliefs in supporting Israel and the U.S. She is sorting out what she believes is the best policy position and also factors her own personal beliefs as well,” he said.
Wasserman Schultz has been out of step with Obama on a key area of concern in Florida: Cuba policy. In December, when Obama announced that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, she issued a vague, non-commital statement: “While I have always been opposed to unearned changes in the status of our relationship with Cuba, I will continue to work with the Administration, my colleagues, and community activists to support policies that benefit the Cuban people and do not further entrench the Castro regime.”
It’s certain that Republicans — and perhaps some Democrats — will attack Wasserman Schultz over her Iran position in the future.
“She has to make a pretty consequential decision whether or not she is going to support the president,” said Mark McNulty, a spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition.
And she has to do that in the face of an August Quinnipiac poll showing that Florida voters oppose the nuclear pact with Iran 61 to 25 percent. Nationwide, American voters oppose the Iran deal 2-1, a July Quinnipiac poll found. Polls on views’ held by Jewish voters have been mixed and some experts have raised questions about the surveys’ methodology.
Wasserman Schultz, who is Jewish, is a strong supporter of Israel, whose leaders have criticized the Iran deal. About 15 percent of those who live in her district are Jewish, although the number who vote could be higher.
Jewish members of Congress nationwide have been split on the Iran deal, with many undecided while Jewish groups have clashed over the deal.
“I have never seen different [Jewish] groups get as organized in their advocacy for one side or another like this,” Bittel said. “This is becoming more partisan, the attacks can be more personal, the threats and promises of what’s to come more serious. Having a nuclear Iran makes the stakes higher.”
Sean Bartlett, a spokesman for Wasserman Schultz, said that among the hundreds of phone calls, letters and emails she has received, constituents opposed to the deal have been more vocal than those who support it.
“The Congresswoman has described this as likely the most consequential vote she will take in her 23 years of elected public office.”
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this article. Information from the Associated Press was used in this article.
Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the David Posnack Jewish Community Center, 5850 S. Pine Island Road in Davie, will create some traffic Thursday morning. Protesters are expected to start arriving around 7:30 a.m. and the program will start at about 9 a.m. Biden and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz are holding the meeting with Jewish leaders to discuss the Obama administration’s Iran deal.