Debbie Wasserman Schultz scrutinized over alleged secret lobbying against Iran sanctions

By Dmitriy Shapiro/JNS.org/Washington Jewish Week 

Click photo to download. Caption: Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (right) speaks in 2008, with Joe Biden in the background. Credit: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), has been forced to defend herself after a report of her split with other leading pro-Israel Democrats who support legislation for increased sanctions on Iran.

The Washington Free Beacon, citing undisclosed sources, recently reported that Wasserman Schultz is working behind closed doors to push the White House position against enacting new Iran sanctions while the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic persist.

“While Wasserman Schultz has publicly talked tough on Iran, she is believed to have played a key role in pressuring [U.S. House] Democratic Whip [Steny] Hoyer to pull his support for the bipartisan resolution at the last minute,” the Free Beacon reported.

While no sources corroborated the accusations or had first-hand knowledge of the lobbying, a House aide involved with Iran legislation didn’t dismiss the possibility of the scenario being true.

“It would not be surprising to me that the chair of the DNC is advocating on behalf of the president,” the aide told JNS.org.

At the same time, the aide questioned whether the sources cited by the Free Beacon were high-level Democratic staffers, particularly the undeclared sources who were quoted as saying Wasserman Schultz has sided with the Iranian mullahs over American national interests.

Click photo to download. Caption: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz with senior citizens. Credit: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

“I just couldn’t imagine anyone saying that even if they don’t like her, at least not Democratic Hill staffers,” the aide said.

“I think it’s important to note that just because a senator or a member of congress doesn’t believe this enhanced sanctions legislation should pass does not mean they are in favor of Iran developing a nuclear capacity, and similarly if a senator or member of congress believes there should be enhanced sanctions, it doesn’t mean that they believe that there should be war or no attempt to negotiate with the Iranians,” William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, told JNS.org

Mara Sloan, director of communications for Wasserman Schultz, said the Free Beacon report “cites no one on the record, is inaccurate, and wrong, and mischaracterizes the congresswoman’s actions.”

“As her record reflects, she has always been and remains a staunch proponent of stricter sanctions against Iran as a deterrent to their nuclear weapons ambitions,” Sloan told JNS.org. “Wasserman Schultz will continue working with her colleagues and the Administration to ensure that Iran will never achieve that goal.”

“Wasserman Schultz was not (and is not) working against introducing Iran legislation,” Sloan added.

Currently, new Iran sanctions legislation is working its way through the Senate, where it has gained strong bipartisan support despite the Obama administration’s opposition. President Barack Obama and Democratic U.S. senators were scheduled to meet Jan. 15, in a gathering where the prospect of Democratic support for The Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Bill (S. 1881), which calls for more sanctions, would undoubtedly be discussed.

Sloan said Wasserman Schultz has a record of supporting Iran sanctions, citing the congresswoman’s co-sponsorship the House’s own sanctions bill, passed by a 400-20 bipartisan majority last August.

While the House waits for the Senate to act, House Minority Whip U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) joined Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) in drafting a non-binding resolution to express their support for the Senate’s effort. But plans for the resolution collapsed when Hoyer withdrew his support. The Free Beacon claimed Hoyer’s withdrawal came due to lobbying from Wasserman Schultz. If the comments of Wasserman Schultz’s office to JNS.org are read literally, she has specifically not opposed any “legislation” on Iran sanctions, leaving room for her potential opposition to a non-finalized and non-binding “resolution.”

When the House’s sanctions bill was passed over the summer, negotiations with Iran were not far along and there was no pressure from the White House against Iran sanctions. That is no longer the case. Yet it is doubtful that Hoyer’s withdrawal of support for an Iran sanctions resolution meant he was following Wasserman Schultz’s lead, a Jewish organizational leader told JNS.org.

“Hoyer is a big boy and there are very few people that Hoyer takes orders from,” the leader said. “I’m fairly certain Wasserman Schultz is not one of them.”

True or not, revelations on lobbying by Wasserman Schultz are unlikely to affect her electability, according to numerous Florida political experts.

“I suppose she will never say she’s against the sanctions, but she’s against efforts in the House to put more pressure on the president and the senate to do things that the president would rather not,” said David Hedge, Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida, where Wasserman Schultz received her B.A. and M.A. in political campaigning in 1990. 

“At the end of the day, it seems like she’s trying to please every side here, the president, her constituency, her larger liberal constituency in the party,” Hedge said. 

Susan MacManus, Distinguished Professor at the University of South Florida School of Department of Government and International Affairs, said that even with polls saying that most Americans, including Democrats, are in favor of increased Iran sanctions, Wasserman Schultz’s district is safe enough that her differences with the electorate on one political issue would not hurt her re-election chances.

“Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz is from a very heavily Democratic district,” MacManus told JNS.org. “I just looked at the registration figures today and it’s 2-1 Democrats.”

“It has a sizable Jewish population; and the Jewish population there—while yes, there are some who would be more conservative—there are more that are liberal,” MacManus said. “This issue alone would not be enough to move an election, particularly against a conservative Republican.”

Hedge pointed to Wasserman Schultz’s previous election wins in Florida’s 23rd Congressional District—where from her first election in 2004, she has consistently earned landslide victories in which she garnered percentages of the vote in the 60s and 70s, and ran unopposed in 2006.

Joe Kaufman, a perennial Republican primary candidate in the district, told JNS.org in a statement that he does not blame Wasserman Schultz if she is indeed opposing sanctions, since he takes an even stronger stance against them himself.

“... I have been very public in saying that sanctions will not stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” Kaufman wrote. “History has shown (North Korea, Iraq, etc.) that sanctions only work to economically punish the populace of the nation they are placed on, and I do not want to see harm come to the citizens of Iran, especially those citizens who are pro-U.S.”

But Kaufman said he differs from Wasserman Schultz in that he believes her motivation comes from blind support of Obama and the belief that additional sanctions would hurt negotiations with Iran.

“I want to know how anyone can negotiate with a nation whose leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, openly calls the U.S. ‘evil’ and Israel a ‘bastard’ nation and proudly speaks of a future ‘annihilation’ of the Jewish state. Anyone who issues this type of rhetoric is not looking for peace,” Kaufman wrote.

According to both Hedge and MacManus, there is little chance that Wasserman Schultz could lose an election in her district, where she is still very popular, but she might face a stiffer challenge if she decided to run for a statewide office like U.S. senator or governor. For a political swing state like Florida, MacManus believes, Wasserman Schultz and her district are even too liberal for many Democratic voters in other parts of Florida.

This article is exclusive to JNS.org.

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Posted on January 14, 2014 and filed under News, U.S..