August 14, 2015
By Jonathan D. Salant
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker speaks at a Capitol press conference Jan. 19 to oppose proposals for allowing oil drilling off the Atlantic Coast. At left is Sen. Robert Menendez, who spoke earlier. (Jonathan D. Salant | NJ Advance Media)
Booker has yet to decide whether to vote for the agreement with Iran that would curb its nuclear program for at least 10 years in exchange for removing economic sanctions.
“I’m going to make what I believe is the best decision for the safety and security of our nation,” Booker (D-N.J.) said in an interview. “This is too important a decision to be made by external pressures.”
The pressures are there. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has met with him, as has Dr. Ben Chouake, the head of the Englewood Cliffs-based pro-Israel political action committee NorPAC, which opposes the deal.
“He has friends and colleagues on both sides of this issue,” said Aaron Keyak, former Middle East adviser to then-U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9th Dist.) and now managing director of Bluelight Strategies, a public policy group in Washington. “He does not have an easy decision to make. Either way, he’s going to disappoint friends and long-time supporters of his.”
Booker faced a similar situation earlier this year when Congress considered legislation to impose new sanctions unless Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program. Booker eventually endorsed a compromise measure co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and backed by White House to let Congress review any agreement. Menendez, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its former chair, also remains undecided on the Iran agreement though has been critical of some of its elements.
Having won the authority to do so, Congress is now reviewing the Iran deal. Two-thirds of each house of Congress would be needed to scuttle the deal as Obama could veto a congressional resolution of disapproval.
That has set off a lobbying effort that Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, called the most intense he’s ever seen by the American Jewish community.
“I haven’t seen this many activists,” Rosenbaum said. “I haven’t seen this kind of intensity.”
Booker received $364,876 from the pro-Israel community for the 2014 elections, his seventh biggest source of campaign contributions and more than any other candidate running that year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group.
“Everybody’s talking to him,” said Chouake, whose NorPAC contributed or raised $158,871 for Booker, his biggest source of campaign cash for the 2014 elections. “He’s a natural leader. This is the most important vote of his career.”
Chouake’s group, along with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization, are among those urging Congress to reject the Iran deal. Both groups have urged supporters to contact undecided lawmakers, including Booker.
An AIPAC-backed advocacy group, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, is running television ads against the deal, including in the two markets that cover New Jersey, New York City and Philadelphia.
The problem, Chouake said, is that the agreement only delays Iran from getting a nuclear weapon for 10 years. A decade from now, he said, should Iran decide it wants a bomb, the U.S. would face a much stronger and wealthier adversary, he said.
“All this agreement does ultimately is it kicks the can down the road,” Chouake said. “In 10 years, the worst country is going to get nuclear weapons.”
The pro-White House side includes J Street and the NJDC. J Street’s PAC contributed $1.8 million to federal candidates in 2014, more than any other group identified as pro-Israel. NorPAC was second with almost $850,000.
“We’re using all of the assets in our advocacy tool kit to encourage members to support the agreement,” said Dylan Williams, J Street’s chief lobbyist. “What’s important to note is that not only does the policy analysis support being in favor of this agreement but the political analysis does as well.”
Rosenbaum, who hosted a fundraiser for Booker last year, sald the senator has heard from his group.
“We’re not flying people in to knock on Senate doors but we’re playing a role here and have been very clear in our support of this deal,” Rosenbaum said.
Kerry told a group of Washington-based reporters from local newspapers that Booker was one of the senators he had talked to about the deal.
“It’s fair to say to everybody, this deal is not predicated on any trust,” Kerry said. “It takes a little while to show people what the different requirements are here that go beyond trust.”
They include inspections, monitoring requirements and limits on enrichment, some of which extend for 25 years, according to the White House.
In addition, former U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th Dist.), now chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, joined 28 other scientists and engineers backing the deal, calling it “technically sound, stringent and innovative” in a letter to Obama, which was distributed at the reporters’ briefing with Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
When Booker finally makes up his mind, other senators are likely to follow his lead, Keyak said.
“Senator Booker is a pro-Israel leader and one of the Senate’s staunchest defenders of Israel,” Keyak said. “Certainly, either way he goes, he’ll provide cover for other senators. It’s not going to come down to campaign donors or political ads. It’s going to come down to what he truly believes.”