Cory Booker, biggest Democratic recipient of pro-Israel donations, faces pressure on Iran sanctions

By Jonathan D. Salant | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on February 10, 2015

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, right, the biggest Democratic recipient of pro-Israel donations during the 2014 congressional elections, is seen here as Newark mayor meeting with Israel's consul general in New York, Ido Aharoni, in 2013.

 

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Cory Booker received more money from pro-Israel donors than any other Democratic candidate in the last election cycle. Now he faces pressure to join them in supporting increased sanctions on Iran.

Booker so far has resisted entreaties to sign onto legislation introduced by fellow New Jersey Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez that would impose new sanctions on Iran if negotiations on rolling back its nuclear program do not succeed by a March 24 deadline for establishing a political framework for such a deal.

"I think he should be on it," said Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood, president of NorPAC, the an influential nonpartisan pro-Israel group that raised or donated more than $150,000 to Booker. "The legislation is good and we have asked him to sign on. I would be delighted to see him sign on."

 

Booker co-sponsored similar legislation introduced by Menendez in the last Congress, but so far has remained on the sidelines and has told his colleague that he would not add his name to the measure at this time.

"Senator Booker shares Senator Menendez's view that Iran simply cannot be allowed to obtain or develop nuclear weapons," Booker spokeswoman Monique Waters said. "That's why Senator Booker is closely monitoring the progress of multinational negotiations aimed at forcing Iran to abandon its development of nuclear arms. Given the negotiations' complex and evolving nature, Senator Booker is continuing to evaluate whether his support of the bill would maximize the prospects of a strong deal that would protect the United States and its allies."

The Senate Banking Committee overwhelmingly passed the legislation sponsored by Menendez and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), 18-4, on Jan. 29, sending it to the Senate floor. But Menendez and other Senate Democrats said they would not vote to enact the legislation until after a March 24 deadline for negotiators to develop the parameters of a deal designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The final deadline for an agreement is June 30.

Co-sponsoring the bill this time would put Booker at odds with President Obama, who said in his State of the Union address last month that he would veto any new sanctions legislation. Obama and his allies have said that increasing sanctions at this time, even if they are to take effect only if negotiations fail, would jeopardize the ongoing talks.

Booker supported Obama for president in 2008 even though most other prominent New Jersey Democrats endorsed Hillary Clinton, then a U.S. senator from neighboring New York. Obama taped a radio commercial for Booker during his Senate race last year.

Both advocates and opponents of increased sanctions are lobbying senators through letters, phone calls and office visits.

The chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Greg Rosenbaum, who hosted a fundraiser for Booker last year at Washington Nationals' baseball stadium, said he would be calling the senator to urge him to keep his name off the bill.

"We're trying to let senators know that there is no monolithic view that the sanctions bill should be voted on or co-sponsored," Rosenbaum said..

In opposing the sanctions bill, the NJDC is aligned with J Street, whose PAC provided more money to congressional candidates for the 2014 election than any other pro-Israel organization, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group. J Street, which supports a two-state solution in the Middle East, is sometimes at odds with other groups described as pro-Israel. J Street's PAC contributed $1.7 million. NorPAC was second with $866,540.

"All of the Democratic senators are targets of very serious efforts," said Dylan Williams, JStreet's chief lobbyist. "Senator Booker is definitely one. He's definitely in a special position, given that he is Senator Menendez's in-state colleague, but also because he is one of the bellweathers of progressive Democratic leadership."

On the other side is NorPAC, based in Englewood Cliffs, which last week gave supporters a list of every senator and his or her phone number and asked them to call the lawmakers to either thank them for backing the bill or request that they add their names to it.

The largest pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, features large color pictures of Menendez and Kirk on the home page of its website as it tells its members to "urge your senators to sign this legislation."

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which receives financial support from casino executive Sheldon Adelson, also has called for increased sanctions. Adelson and his wife Miriam spent around $70 million in 2012 trying to defeat Obama.

"Congress needs to place enhanced sanctions on Iran to demonstrate that we are serious about halting their nuclear weapons program," the coalition's executive director, Matt Brooks, said last month. "The president's veto threat will only empower and embolden Iran to continue as a threat to the entire region and world."

In winning a 2013 special election to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Booker raised $307,649 from donors identified by the Center for Responsive Politics as pro-Israel. He raised another $25,727 as he won a full six-year term in 2014. The combined total of $333,376 was second only to the $370,148 contributed to the re-election campaign of a Republican candidate, new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell is also an original co-sponsor of the Menendez-Kirk legislation.

Booker signed onto the Menendez legislation in 2013, shortly after he won the special election to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg. But at that time, Obama didn't publicly vow to veto the sanctions bill. Both Clinton, the presumptive frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leader of the party's liberal wing, have come out against more sanctions.

"Among the many considerations that Senator Booker's probably weighing right now is the overwhelming opposition of the Democratic base to this effort to undermine diplomacy," Williams said.

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