DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Members of Congress have now left Washington, D.C. for the August recess. But the lobbying blitz on the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers is sure to hound them back at home. This is because a vote that could kill the deal is coming days after they return in September. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, the lobbying is focusing on a group of undecided Democrats.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: When you listen to lawmakers talk about the Iran deal, they'll hit on themes like national security, diplomacy, morality. It's a debate about heady ideas. And a swarm of outside groups is now pouring millions of dollars into steering that debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Iran has violated 20 international agreements and is the leading state sponsor of terrorism. Congress should reject a bad deal.
CHANG: This is an ad from Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, a group supported by one of the biggest opponents to the deal, AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC wouldn't sit down for an interview nor say how much money the group and its allies will spend on this fight. But reported estimates run between 20 and $40 million. That range vastly dwarfs the $5 million its main adversary has to spend, J Street.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We're here with General Mitzna from J Street.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK, is everybody in the group here?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes.
CHANG: J Street is flying in people like retired Israeli General Amram Mitzna to tell lawmakers you can still be pro-Israel and disagree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who's adamantly opposed to the deal.
So how did it go?
AMRAM MITZNA: It was a very nice meeting.
MITZNA: Wasn't it?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yeah.
MITZNA: He was very, very friendly and, again, he didn't say what he's going to vote, but...
CHANG: But Mitzna says he's seen this time and time again.
MITZNA: It's the nature of politicians that they don't take a decision as long as they don't need to take a decision.
CHANG: And among those in the undecided camp, lobbying has focused intensely on Democrats. To keep the deal alive, the White House cannot lose more than a dozen Democrats in the Senate. Here's J Street's legislative liaison, Kevin Rachlin.
KEVIN RACHLIN: There's a good chunk of members who have really just not moved or given any indication of where they're going to end up being. So it's a lot of everybody just piling on top of them to get them to swing one way or the other.
CHANG: If it's about sheer intensity, here are the numbers. Since the deal was announced mid-July, J Street has had more than 125 lawmaker meetings. On the other side, AIPAC says it had 400 meetings in congressional offices just last week. J Street plans to target five states with TV ads while the open government group Sunlight Foundation found that AIPAC allies bought TV ad space in at least 23 states.
CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I think sometimes lobbying is counterproductive.
CHANG: That's Claire McCaskill of Missouri, an undecided Democrat.
MCCASKILL: I don't think that high-pressure lobbying tactics are particularly effective around here.
CHANG: That's a perspective echoed by probably the most scrutinized Democrat who still hasn't weighed in on this deal, Chuck Schumer of New York.
CHUCK SCHUMER: I'm not going to let pressure or politics or party influence my decision. And then, when I think my questions have been answered, I'll let people know how I feel and why, plain and simple.
CHANG: Schumer is the man in line to be the next Democratic leader in the Senate. He has always been a staunch ally of AIPAC. Here he was last year at the group's conference.
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SCHUMER: I promise you today, together we will never allow anything - anything - to break the everlasting bond between America and Yisraâel, the land of Israel.
CHANG: Those are words groups working with AIPAC don't want Schumer to forget now. They've been zeroing in on him with ads like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Now Obama is caving to Iran. Call Senator Schumer, and tell him he must stand firm.
CHANG: The Emergency Committee for Israel ran this ad. Noah Pollak heads the group and says if you're a Jewish lawmaker like Schumer, it's going to be hard to ignore statements by some Iranian leaders calling for the destruction of Israel.
NOAH POLLAK: You yourself have a Jewish conscience that makes all of this very, very disturbing.
CHANG: But some Jewish lawmakers say their faith does not make the decision more complex than it already is. Here's Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland.
BEN CARDIN: In the Jewish community itself, there's division as to whether to support this issue or not. It's pretty evenly divided from what we have seen and the correspondence we've received. So I think whether you're Jewish, not Jewish, you want to do what's right for this country.
CHANG: Supporters and critics of the agreement have six weeks to intensify the pressure on lawmakers before Congress has to vote. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.
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