Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is in an unenviable position.
The chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee has yet to announce where she stands on President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran — and no matter how she eventually votes, the Florida Democrat is likely to pay a political price.
“There is no sugarcoating it, right?” a Wasserman Schultz spokesman told CQ Roll Call. “She is in an objectively difficult position.”
Wasserman Schultz is a national party figurehead who was handpicked by Obama to lead the DNC, and the onus on her to promote the administration’s policies and priorities is significant. Earlier this year she voted for the politically unpopular Trade Promotion Authority legislation, supporting the president on what was then his No. 1 legislative priority. The closely negotiated Iran nuclear agreement holds similar significance for the White House and to vote “no” could be perceived as a serious affront.
But Wasserman Schultz is also a Jewish congresswoman representing a southern Florida district with a large Jewish constituency with concerns that the president’s Iran deal undermines Israeli security. The powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has traditionally backed Wasserman Schultz, is lobbying heavily against the nuclear framework.
She has said she will make a decision as a congresswoman rather than as a DNC chairwoman, and it’s in her official capacity as a congresswoman that she’ll host Vice President Joe Biden at a public forum in South Florida on Thursday. Biden is scheduled to engage directly with her constituents on the Iran deal and will take questions for close to an hour.
“There are a number of questions and concerns that I have, along with my constituents and community leaders, about the agreement,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement last week. “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 spokesman said Biden was not being brought in to provide political cover: “She has now hosted four of these meetings herself … she can handle it all by herself. This is a matter of, ‘I’ve showed you some of my concerns on both sides. Let me bring in someone who can answer them even further, from an expert standpoint.’”
Still, Biden’s presence speaks to at least some acknowledgement that Wasserman Schultz is in a delicate situation, having to navigate two separate political identities. Not since former Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) has a sitting member of Congress also served at the helm of the DNC while a Democratic president was in the White House. (Dodd’s 1995-97 chairmanship coincided with President Bill Clinton’s administration). She also harbors ambitions to rise in the ranks of House Democratic leadership once she concludes her tenure at the DNC, a third tension.
So far, Wasserman Schultz has been able to withstand the pressure — and not only withstand, but benefit from the administration’s sensitivity to her plight, even after this past weekend at the DNC’s summer meeting in Minneapolis when she was accused of blocking a vote expressing support for the Iran deal.
Critics questioned her loyalty to the president in scathing, anonymous statements to the press. Wasserman Schultz’s spokesman, meanwhile, explained to CQ Roll Call the resolution was not submitted for consideration by the early August deadline, meaning it would have been out of order to add it to the agenda on the spot.
The spokesman also disputed the characterization that a motion to vote on the resolution was ever actually offered. Rather, a request to consider a resolution on Iran was one of a three-part, out-of-order request from a DNC member, and Wasserman Schultz had to consult with the parliamentarian on how to proceed.
That narrative was confirmed to Capital New York by DNC member Jeff Zogby and Christine Pelosi, the chairwoman of the California Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus and daughter of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Zogby and the younger Pelosi were collecting signatures for a more informal letter of support for the president’s Iran deal, and each said they had no problems with Wasserman Schultz’s leadership during the meeting.
But the widespread compassion for Wasserman Schultz could be short-lived if she ultimately opposes the deal. For proof, look no further than what happened to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who got little sympathy from party figureheads despite his similar predicament as a Jewish lawmaker with leadership aspirations; he is the heir apparent to retiring Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
“I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if there are individual members of the Senate Democratic Caucus that will consider the voting record of those who say they would like to lead the caucus,” was all White House press secretary Josh Earnest had to say of Schumer the day after he announced his opposition.