Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski handed President Barack Obama a victory Wednesday by announcing her support for the pending Iran nuclear agreement, providing the final vote needed to ensure the deal will survive GOP opposition in Congress.
The Maryland Democrat, who will retire in 2017 after 30 years in the Senate, became the 34th senator to back the deal, ensuring that the administration can sustain a veto on what is arguably the most significant foreign policy objective of the president's second term.
"No deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime," Mikulski said in a lengthy statement explaining her position. "I have concluded that this [deal] is the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb."
Mikulski's position was not a surprise, but the timing was unexpected. Most observers were paying closer attention to Maryland's other senator, Ben Cardin. The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cardin remains undecided on the deal, but says he will announce his position soon.
Republican leaders in Congress are preparing a resolution to disapprove the agreement, which was unveiled in July after near two years of negotiation. If the measure passes, Obama has vowed to veto it — and the president now has the votes to block an attempt to override that veto.
Undecided Democrats have been under intense pressure in recent weeks from supporters of the deal and opponents alike. Several groups are airing television ads in Maryland; the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — a powerful Washington-based pro-Israel group that opposes the deal — organized a well-attended rally at Cardin's synagogue in Pikesville on Tuesday.
Mikulski, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, became the fourth member of the state's congressional delegation to support the deal, along with Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, Chris Van Hollen and Donna F. Edwards.
Rep. Andy Harris, the state's only Republican in Congress, has announced his opposition.
Mikulski said she is confident that the agreement — which would lift economic sanctions in exchange for stronger inspections of nuclear sites in Iran — will block pathways for Tehran to obtain the bomb. She echoed the Obama administration's position that the only alternatives to the deal are further sanctions, or military action.
"Without question, this vote is among the most serious I've taken," Mikulski said. "This vote has monumental and enduring consequences."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, acknowledged that Mikulski's decision gave the White House the upper hand. But he suggested Republicans nevertheless would be needed to address what he described as the inevitable results of the deal.
"While the president may be able to sustain a veto with the tepid, restricted and partisan support of one third of one House of Congress over Americans' bipartisan opposition, it will require a bipartisan Congress to strengthen our defenses in the Persian Gulf and to stand up to the inevitable Iranian violations," McConnell said in a statement. "And because this is not a treaty, it can and should be revisited by our new president."
Mikulski's announcement drew criticism from at least one Republican vying for that job: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Speaking on the conservative Hugh Hewitt radio show, Christie said Mikulski and other Democrats who have announced their support will now be responsible for any terrorist acts supported by Iran.
"They're responsible for any deaths that occur," Christie said. "They're responsible for any threat to Israel."
Though Cardin has remained relatively quiet during the August recess, he scheduled two events on Iran this week, one at the Johns Hopkins University and another at the University of Maryland. Cardin had just started addressing students in College Park on Wednesday morning when Mikulski announced her position.
"She came to it a very thoughtful manner," Cardin said. "It is clear that the agreement will go forward."
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland said the administration would likely now try to find the seven additional votes needed to block a resolution of disapproval from advancing in the Senate.
But Hoyer, an undecided Democrat, said he believes the deal should receive a vote on its merits.
"I think it ought to be considered on an up or down vote, not on a procedural vote," Hoyer said. "I think Barbara made her judgment based upon her best conclusion. I'm still making my way toward that … still trying to figure out what's best for the country."
Five of Maryland's 10 lawmakers in Washington — Cardin, Hoyer and Democratic Reps. John Sarbanes, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Delaney — have yet to announce a position on the deal.
Opponents of the agreement had hoped to use the August congressional recess to pressure wavering Democrats in their home states. But that effort has largely fizzled.
Secretary of State John Kerry — who negotiated the deal along with leaders of Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — used a speech in Philadelphia Wednesday to defend it.
"If this agreement is rejected, every possible reason for worry in the future would have to be confronted now, immediately, in the months ahead," he said. "Once again, and soon, Iran would begin advancing its nuclear program."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, speaking to reporters traveling with President Barack Obama in Alaska, said the administration was encouraged by the developments Wednesday.
"This strong support is a validation of the outreach that the president and his team have organized to make sure that every member of the Senate understands exactly what's included in this agreement," he said.
Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this story.