Washington — The highlight of AIPAC’s year is the final day of its annual policy conference, when thousands of activists ascend Capitol Hill to lobby for the passage of the organization’s legislative priorities.
But just three weeks before the conference, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is facing a dilemma: how to craft a legislative agenda after losing a bruising battle with the Obama administration over Iran sanctions and amid uncertainty stemming from regional turmoil and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
An AIPAC official confirmed that the lobbying group has yet to choose a legislative initiative for the estimated 14,000 activists to support at the March 2-4 conference.
While AIPAC does not unveil the specifics of its favored legislative action until the eve of its conference, what’s unusual is that those close to the group and its Capitol Hill interlocutors say it’s not yet clear even behind closed doors what shape AIPAC’s lobbying will assume.
AIPAC activists typically carry to the Hill requests for legislative initiatives that address Iran’s nuclear program and the security of Israel. The requests can take the form of a bill, a nonbinding resolution or a congressional letter.
A year ago, AIPAC activists asked lawmakers to restore funds that were cut from defense assistance for Israel in across-the-board congressional budget reductions. They also lobbied for four bills — two in each legislative chamber — that would make Israel a “major strategic ally” and enhance Iran sanctions.
Since then, the cuts have been restored, and the major strategic ally bill is advancing in the U.S. House of Representatives but has stalled in the Senate.
The House passed new Iran sanctions last summer, before the announcement of talks between the major powers and Iran. The Senate version of the bill, however, faced strong opposition from the Obama administration and fell short of the two-thirds backing necessary to override a promised presidential veto.
AIPAC, after initially pushing hard for its passage, last week relented and accepted delaying a vote on the measure.
A source close to AIPAC and four top congressional staffers from both parties confirmed that the group is now considering a nonbinding resolution addressing its concerns about the nuclear talks now underway between the major world powers and Iran.
“I’ve heard there’s an option of a resolution being kicked around, but not much beyond that,” said a staffer for a top Democrat, referring to the Iran issue.
The uncertainty regarding what’s next on the Iran issue is evident on Capitol Hill. A Republican source told JTA on Tuesday afternoon that Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, had agreed on the text of a nonbinding resolution that would recommend congressional oversight in implementing the current interim nuclear deal as well as outlining acceptable outcomes for a final agreement. But an official in Hoyer’s office immediately denied the claim.
Leading AIPAC board members were meeting Tuesday with lawmakers to discuss future steps. One factor making it difficult to decide on an appropriate legislative vehicle for an AIPAC-backed initiative on Israeli security needs is that Israeli-Palestinian talks are being kept secret at the behest of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is expected to soon present a framework for an agreement.
The framework would address Israeli security needs in detail. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, administration insiders said, mostly have been supportive of Kerry’s efforts.
There has been no such comity on Iran, where the White House and AIPAC had been locked in a battle of wills over the Senate’s Iran sanctions legislation. Senate Republicans had been pushing for quick action on the AIPAC-backed bill, which had majority support in the chamber, but Democrats resisted calling a vote.
Last week, both the bill’s chief Democratic sponsor, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and AIPAC distanced themselves from calls for an immediate vote on the legislation.
“I hope that we will not find ourselves in a partisan process trying to force a vote on a national security matter before its appropriate time,” Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a Feb. 6 speech.
Menendez, sources close to the senator said, was referring to a letter sent that morning to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, from 42 Republican senators calling for a vote on the bill.
His speech, however, was otherwise a lengthy defense of a measure that was vigorously opposed by the Obama administration, which warned that its passage could scuttle talks with Iran.
Within an hour or so of the Menendez floor speech, AIPAC released a statement backing the senator’s approach.
“We agree with the chairman that stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and that there should not be a vote at this time on the measure,” the AIPAC statement said.
The next day, AIPAC President Michael Kassen sent a letter to activists referring to “mischaracterizations in the press,” which he said suggested that “by not calling for an immediate vote on the legislation, we have abandoned our support for the bill.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Kassen wrote. “In fact, we remain strongly committed to the passage of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act.”
An AIPAC official told JTA there was no contradiction.
“ While we do not believe there should be an immediate vote, we continue to strongly support the sanctions legislation,” the official said. “The need for further pressure on the Iranian regime will build as we witness the continued irresponsible behavior from Tehran.”
Republicans want action now and are frustrated with AIPAC for backing away from the Senate bill, said a senior GOP Senate staffer, and will not settle for a nonbinding resolution — at least not in the Senate.
“If an organization wants to put its complete faith and confidence in a nonbinding resolution, they will be unpleasantly bound to a very bad outcome in the end,” the staffer said. “If you are for doing nothing or for a nonbinding resolution instead of actual legislation, you are for the president having complete freedom of action to cut whatever deal he wants with Iranians without any approval or disapproval from the Congress.”
Democrats — among them, staffers for lawmakers known for their closeness to AIPAC — also expressed frustration with AIPAC, saying it had untypically pressed the sanctions legislation hard without first assessing whether it had broad support.
Democratic officials said public opposition to the bill was strong and noted that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had come out against it.