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 organization’s legislative priorities.
But just three weeks before this year’s 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 amid the uncertainties of regional turmoil and difficult 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. 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 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.
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 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 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.
Within an hour or so of the Menendez floor speech, AIPAC released a statement backing the senator’s approach.
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.”
Republicans want action now and are frustrated with AIPAC for backing away from the Senate bill, said a senior GOP Senate staffer. They 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.
Democrats — among them, staffers for lawmakers known for their closeness to AIPAC — also expressed frustration, saying AIPAC had pressed the legislation hard without first assessing whether it had broad support.