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BY JOHN BRESNAHAN, ANNA PALMER, JAKE SHERMAN AND HEATHER CAYGLE
WITH MAX COHEN AND CHRISTIAN HALL
Happy Wednesday morning.
News: Even as the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominates the news globally, there’s a behind-the-scenes struggle going on between the Biden administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill over Iran.
Tensions are running high between some Jewish House Democrats and the White House over a possible Iran nuclear deal, with rank-and-file lawmakers on edge over how the Biden administration is handling both the substance and politics of the high-stakes negotiations.
The discord came to a head on Saturday during a two-hour call between roughly a dozen House Democrats and Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and Africa, and other senior administration officials, according to a half-dozen sources familiar with the situation.
On that call, these Democrats laid into administration officials about being kept out of the loop about the status of the talks between the United States and Iran. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) said on the call that the White House is bungling the public messaging surrounding the negotiations, and several other lawmakers raised concerns about being forced to answer for the deal once it’s cut.
The Democrats had several gripes, according to sources on the call.
→ Democrats complained the Biden administration hasn’t been selling a potential Iran deal to Capitol Hill or the public. Not just the parameters of any accord, but also how the administration will handle the expected political controversy. Furthermore, they say the administration should do a better job spelling out why an agreement between the U.S. and Iran is needed now.
→ Lawmakers complained they have been requesting a briefing for months on the status of the talks. Democrats are concerned that there’s no comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran and that the Biden administration is only focused on getting an agreement, not the long-term consequences for U.S. allies in the region.
To that end, McGurk will be on Capitol Hill Thursday to brief the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Iran — his second such briefing in the last few weeks. He’ll return Friday to brief Jewish House Democrats and other Democratic lawmakers with concerns about the looming deal. In other words, it seems as if the administration has gotten the message.
→ The rank-and-file Democrats expressed concerns about lifting sanctions on Iranian oil sales at this time.They worried that it would appear that the United States was easing up on the regime because of high oil prices due to the war between Ukraine and Russia. One House Democrat said it seemed as if the United States was “selling our soul” for oil.
In an interview Tuesday, Slotkin declined to discuss the call. But Slotkin said she has been troubled that other Democrats reached out afterwards and told her they have yet to receive a briefing on Iran.
Slotkin, who worked as a CIA analyst, described McGurk as a “friend,” and said it would be best if the White House sent him “to as many members as possible.”
Here’s what Slotkin told us Tuesday night about her ongoing concerns about the Iran negotiations:
“If this Iran deal is happening, we need to explain both to members and to the public why it’s important and why now. I don’t think anyone, with Ukraine raging, is focusing on this. On issues of national security that are important, we need to educate the public. Think about the ramp up of [Vladimir] Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.”
The status of the talks with Iran also came up during the House Democratic leadership meeting on Tuesday night. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer walked through the mechanics of a likely House and Senate vote on a resolution of disapproval if the Biden administration does strike an accord with Iran. This would be as required under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Review Act, which Congress passed in order to review – and potentially reject – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That was the agreement reached between the Obama administration, Iran and the P5 +1, which included China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
The Biden administration hasn’t formally said that it will submit any Iran agreement to Congress for review. But it’s clear that INARA remains in effect and the White House can’t simply “re-enter” the 2015 agreement, as the president had once suggested. Congress should thus have a chance to vote on any accord.
Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to dramatically scale back its nuclear research and development efforts in return for the removal of harsh U.S. and European Union economic sanctions. President Barack Obama stipulated that the JCPOA wasn’t a treaty and didn’t require Senate approval. But lawmakers in both parties wanted a chance to review the Iran deal anyway, and they enacted INARA over Obama’s objections. A majority of senators opposed the Iran agreement – voting in support of a resolution of disapproval under INARA – but there was enough Democratic support to uphold an Obama veto.
During Tuesday’s House leadership session, some members raised concerns about Frontline Democrats having to vote on this issue at all. They’d rather be focusing on anything else, such as what the administration is doing to bring down gas prices or tame inflation.
Russia has been blocking any deal with Iran during the last two weeks, seeking written guarantees from the United States that its economic ties to the Islamic republic won’t be impacted by American-led sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine. There were multiple reports on Tuesday that Russia has now “softened” those demands, making a nuclear agreement possible once again.
There’s also significant concern over Iran’s missile attack Sunday against a target in the Iraqi city of Ebril, which is in the country’s Kurdish region. A nearby U.S. consulate building was not damaged in the attack. U.S. officials have suggested it was an Israeli training facility. Israeli planes bombed a Syrian site last week, killing several members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards site. Iraqi officials harshly condemned the Ebril attack.
Israeli officials, as they were in 2015, remain strongly opposed to any nuclear deal with Iran, which they view as an existential threat to Israel’s existence. The two countries have been locked in a “shadow war” for years, and Israeli officials are gravely concerned about Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons.
Also: Don’t forget: We’re interviewing Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) this afternoon at 3 p.m. ET about President Joe Biden’s proposed climate initiatives. Tune in here and check out our events hub to view all of our upcoming and past events!
And last night … Punchbowl News hosted the Senate Press Secretaries Association at Sazerac House on Capitol Hill for a happy hour. Thanks Elizabeth Wise and Laura Pinsky at Sazerac House. And, to the SPSA board for making it happen: Ty Bofferding, Evan Dixon, Erin Heeter, Roy Loewenstein, Tom Brandt, Mike Inacay and Natalie Yezbick.
PRESENTED BY GOOGLE
Strengthening American cybersecurity
As cyber attacks continue to threaten the private information of people, organizations and governments around the world, Google is committing $10 billion to advance cybersecurity.
This will expand zero-trust programs, help secure the software supply chain, and enhance open-source security.
Inside the GOP: McCarthy will announce $11M transfer to GOP groups today
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will announce this morning in a closed-door GOP meeting that he’s transferred $11 million to the NRCC and state parties in the first quarter of 2022, an eye-popping sum for any party leader.
McCarthy transferred $2.5 million in January, $2.5 million in February and will transfer $4 million in March to the NRCC. McCarthy has moved another $1.8 million to Republican state parties. Roughly $105,000 will come from MCPAC, McCarthy’s leadership fund.
All told, McCarthy has transferred $36 million to the NRCC since the beginning of 2021.
For context, in the first quarter of 2021, McCarthy transferred $6.2 million to the NRCC.
Every party leader uses their fundraising prowess to build support among their rank-and-file. But there’s no Republican leader who has approached McCarthy in the fundraising game. And if House Republicans win back the majority in 2022, this will be a part of his bid to be speaker of the House.
→ Also: Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), who is running for the Ways and Means chairmanship, plans to update his colleagues about his political giving, announcing a six-figure haul in the last few weeks.
INSIDE THE DEM CAUCUS
Pelosi still angry over Covid aid debacle
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still fuming about the rank-and-file revolt last week that forced Democratic leaders to strip $15 billion in Covid preparedness funds from the $1.5 trillion omnibus package.
Pelosi spent a chunk of the Democratic leadership meeting Tuesday night railing against the Democrats who held up passage of the omnibus until the Covid funds were removed, several sources familiar with the meeting told us.
Pelosi often refers back to her time as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. She noted during the meeting that rank-and-file members rebelling against a deal cut by Congress’ “Four Corners” – the chair and ranking members of the House and Senate Appropriations panels – used to be unthinkable. Now, Democratic leaders are struggling to find a way to move a standalone Covid funding bill in the face of Republican opposition, as well as unease among Frontliners.
Multiple Democratic insiders told us they don’t think there’s any way for leadership to move a bill this week, despite leadership’s public posturing.
Here’s what House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said about a potential Covid funding vote this week:
“We’re talking about it, yes, if we can. We need to get a pay-for that everyone feels comfortable with, because Republicans want a pay-for. And that’s fine. That’s what we’re talking about.”
Hoyer, though, didn’t completely commit to such a vote, despite heavy pressure from the White House. The majority leader also hedged a little bit on timing, adding, “I’d like to get it done. I don’t think we have to get it done. The sooner we get it done, the better, I think, because the sooner resources can get deployed.”
WASHINGTON AND THE WORLD
Zelensky wants what Congress can’t give
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky will appear in front of Congress today in what is the most dramatic foreign leader address in years, perhaps since Winston Churchill addressed the body in 1941.
Zelensky won’t be on Capitol Hill, of course. He’ll be addressing members of Congress gathered in the Capitol Visitors Center on Zoom even as Russian forces continue their bloody invasion of Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians have already died in the Russian offensive, while more than two million others have fled the country. The United States has approved a $13 billion-plus humanitarian and military aid package for Ukraine and other Eastern European countries impacted by the crisis.
Probably the most interesting dynamic is that Zelensky will find himself crosswise with some members of Congress and the White House.
There are two demands Zelensky wants that the U.S. simply will not give him: Soviet-era MiG fighter jets and a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Congress and the Biden administration have moved to head off the transfer of MiG jets to the Ukrainians after objections from the Pentagon. Senators in both parties have suggested that surface-to-air missile systems and other defensive mechanisms are more effective.
And President Joe Biden has flatly refused to set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine, concerned about being dragged into a direct conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia.
NBC’s Dan De Luce, Courtney Kube and Ken Dilanian reported last night that the U.S. is considering providing Ukraine with “killer drones” to help target Russian tanks from miles away.
Biden will speak at 11:45 a.m. today to announce $800 million in new security aid to Ukraine.
Zelensky will be the third Ukrainian president to address Congress since it became an independent nation following the end of the Cold War, although of course under far different circumstances than his predecessors. Viktor Yushchenko spoke to a joint session of Congress on April 6, 2005, while Petro Poroshenko did so on Sept. 18, 2014, according to congressional records.
→ WaPo: “Zelensky speech to Congress could add pressure on Biden,” by Ashley Parker, Mike DeBonis and Shane Harris
→ AP: “Ukraine to appeal to US for more help amid Russian bombing,” by Andrea Rosa in Kyiv
Jane Fonda – yes, that Jane Fonda – is launching a PAC dedicated to electing “climate champions” and defeating “the allies of the fossil fuel industry” in primary and general elections nationwide.
The Sierra Club’s former national political director Ariel Hayes will serve as the Jane Fonda Climate PAC’s primary adviser.
Here’s part of Fonda’s statement announcing the PAC:
“It’s time we fight fire with fire or, in this case, to fight dollars with dollars. Jane Fonda Climate PAC will have one goal: do whatever it takes to defeat the political allies of the fossil fuel industry, no matter which side of the aisle they’re on.”
Watch the launch video below.
Note: The Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee meeting is today. The Fed is expected to raise interest rates by 25 basis points, the first increase in four years.
8:15 a.m.: Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) will meet with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in S-305.
9 a.m.: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will speak to members of Congress. Members will be gathered in the CVC Auditorium.
9:30 am: President Joe Biden will get his daily intelligence briefing.
10:15 a.m.: House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries and Vice Chair Pete Aguilar will hold their weekly news conference.
10:45 a.m.: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer will hold his weekly pen and pad.
11 a.m.: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the CAPAC will hold an event to mark the one-year anniversary since the Atlanta spa shooting.
11:45 a.m.: Biden will speak about assistance to Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and Joint Chiefs Chair Mark Milley will also attend.
Noon: Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and other Senate Republicans will hold a news conference on Ukraine.
1:45 p.m.: Biden will speak at an event about the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
7:45 p.m.: Biden will speak at the Ireland Fund’s 30th National Gala at the National Building Museum.
→ “Refugee Crisis Will Test a European Economy Under Pressure,” by Patricia Cohen
→ “Inside Chernobyl, 200 Exhausted Staff Toil Round the Clock at Russian Gunpoint,” by Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw
→ “Half of Americans Doubt Biden Will Run in 2024, WSJ Poll Shows,” by Ken Thomas in Atlanta and Catherine Lucey in Erie, Pa.
→ “Citi to Cover Staff Travel for Abortions as States Limit Access,” by Jennifer Surane
→ “Compromise reached on COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property rights waiver,” by Ashleigh Furlong
PRESENTED BY GOOGLE
Google is training 100,000 Americans in cybersecurity skills
As widespread cyber attacks continue to exploit security vulnerabilities, robust cybersecurity depends on having the people to implement it.
Google is strengthening cybersecurity education by pledging to train 100,000 Americans in fields like IT Support and Data Analytics through the Google Career Certificates program.
Editorial photos provided by Getty Images
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