The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the most powerful special interest groups in the United States, has an unusual problem on its hands.
On Sunday, March 2, it will welcome a record 14,000 attendees to Washington, D.C., for its annual policy conference. After two consecutive days of pro-Israel speeches, those supporters will storm Capitol Hill to lobby U.S. lawmakers. But according to sources inside and outside AIPAC, the group does not yet have a piece of legislation to pass for the issue it cares about most: Iran's nuclear program.
The absence of a bill or nonbinding resolution reflects AIPAC's bruising battle with the White House that left Democrats and Republicans bitterly divided on the traditionally nonpartisan issue. It's also leading to criticisms that the group doesn't have a clear legislative agenda ahead of its most important lobbying event of the year.
"When an organization places so much focus on one issue, people are going to be expecting something proactive to do on it when they come to town," said Dylan Williams, director of government affairs at J Street, AIPAC's dovish pro-Israel rival. "And as of today, it's not clear what that something is or whether there will be anything."
To be sure, strenuous efforts were made to introduce some kind of legislation on Iran's nuclear program before the start of the confab, including a long-delayed House resolution outlining the acceptable terms of a final nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. But multiple Hill sources say that the nonbinding resolution, fleshed out by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), will not be introduced before the conference. Instead, aides in the Senate and House said lawmakers may join together to draft letters to the president, but even the fate of that effort is uncertain.
"They just want something," said a GOP Senate aide. "They've spent so much political capital, they'll accept just about anything at this point to not have egg on their face."
But AIPAC officials say such criticism is shortsighted and does not reflect the ambitious agenda it will lay out for thousands of activists next week. "It will not be one piece of legislation, one resolution, or one letter, but a whole series of actions," an AIPAC official told The Cable.
The "comprehensive strategy" outlined by the AIPAC representative will emphasize Congress's role in overseeing the Obama administration's negotiations to curb Iran's nuclear program. That will include scrutinizing the implementation of the interim deal that Tehran and Washington agreed to in November and outlining the parameters of a final agreement.
But AIPAC finds itself trying to thread a difficult needle between Democrats loyal to the president and Republicans eager to drive a wedge in the pro-Israel community. "The issue of Iran sanctions has now become a partisan one with Republicans on one side and the White House and Democrats on the other," said a congressional aide who works closely with AIPAC. "Unfortunately, once an issue becomes partisan, a bipartisan organization like AIPAC has difficulty managing it. Instead of having policy disagreements that are reconcilable, you have political disagreements that are a zero-sum game."
AIPAC, like the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposed the interim deal with Iran and insists that any final deal require Iran to stop enriching uranium on its soil, full stop. Although the interim deal temporarily halted major aspects of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for $7 billion in sanctions relief, pro-Israel hard-liners say it gave too much away. Looking forward, an AIPAC memo to Congress last week demanded that any final deal require Iran to dismantle all "illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities." But many experts inside and outside the administration say Iran would never accept such a deal.
These tactical differences have shattered the usual bipartisan support for AIPAC legislation, leaving the group in an awkward position.
Up until early February, AIPAC supported an Iran sanctions bill by Sens. Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk that threatens more sanctions on Tehran's oil industry if no final deal is reached. The bill racked up an impressive amount of support, with 59 co-sponsors. But the White House threatened to veto the legislation, calling it a "march to war" that could detonate the sensitive nuclear talks in Geneva. After a handful of Democratic leaders rallied to the White House's side, AIPAC reversed course and said the legislation should be shelved for a later date.
According to the AIPAC official, the group is still searching for more co-sponsors of the bill but isn't asking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pass it now. "Our belief is it should come to a vote when it has the broadest support," said the official. That decision has angered a number of Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who've made immediate passage of the bill a signature issue. But it has also smoothed over some anxieties by pro-Israel Democrats who bristled at the group's open defiance of a Democratic president and his allies on the Hill, including Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a lawmaker with a long history of support for the Jewish state. On Thursday, National Journal reported that 82 deep-pocketed Democratic donors sent a letter to Democrats in Congress urging them not to pass any legislation that could jeopardize the nuclear talks.
That same day, Israel became a partisan issue again when Senate Republicans used a filibuster to block a vote on expanding veterans benefits because Democrats would not attach a GOP amendment on Iran sanctions. Reid refused to allow a vote on the amendment due to concerns that it would implode the administration's Iran talks. As a result, the effort to expand health-care programs for veterans, something supported by both parties, failed.
"I hope all the veterans groups have witnessed all the contortions the Republicans have done to defeat this bill," Reid said. "Shame on Republicans for bringing base politics into a bill to help veterans."
A senior GOP aide complained that congressional Democrats were acting against their own views to support the president. "If everyone voted their conscience … it would pass overwhelmingly," he said.
Meanwhile, AIPAC's efforts to cobble together some sort of nonbinding resolution or letter that Democrats and Republicans can agree on has led some to criticize it as weak or irrelevant since neither of the actions would carry the force of law. The AIPAC official said that view fails to appreciate the current political climate in Washington for any lobbying group. "I think a lot of people lose perspective," the official said, referring to AIPAC's efforts to round up 59 co-sponsors for Menendez's bill. "At a time of extraordinary polarization, this has extraordinarily impressive bipartisan support.… I can't think of another piece of substantive legislation that has this breadth of bipartisan support."