Politico: Iran Bill Unlikely to Scuttle Deal

Writing at Politico, reporters Edward-Isaac Dovere & Burgess Everett notice that Congressional oversight–in the form of the Corker-Cardin Iran compromise bill–is unlikely to stop a bad deal with the Islamic Republic.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress are both claiming victory by cornering President Barack Obama to sign an Iran bill he didn’t want.

But the White House says that misses the point: The final legislation was narrowed enough that it’s not going to stand in their way or do anything to upset the ongoing negotiations in Switzerland.
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And interviews with Democratic lawmakers suggest there’s slim chance that they’d be willing to go any further to scuttle a nuclear deal.

While Capitol Hill now has an avenue to block Obama from lifting legislative sanctions on Iran — a precondition of any agreement to curb its ability to build a bomb — now that they feel they’ve asserted constitutional prerogatives, Democratic senators are moving away from a confrontation.

“If the deal ends up looking a lot like the framework, I think the president will be able to sell it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a major proponent of the bill because he believed in Congress’s constitutional prerogative.

Asked about the possibility of Democrats opposing Obama on Iran, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) replied: “It looks unlikely given the details of the framework.”

White House officials believe they got the best outcome possible, and they need to hold just 34 Democrats in the Senate or 144 in the House to keep Republicans from getting in its way.

“Given the noise of this debate, it quickly became in our interest to channel that noise in a direction where it can be contained,” a White House official said Wednesday. “We concluded that we’re just better off locking them into a position so they can have their say — that’s the compromise — but the benefit is there’s no longer any ambiguity about what Congress can do to interfere. This is the only vehicle, the vote will only be on sanctions, there’s a limit on the timing.”

And now, the administration believes, the Iran negotiators can carry on in Switzerland as they try to get a deal by the June 30 deadline without worrying about what might be coming their way from Capitol Hill.

That’s the argument White House chief of staff Denis McDonough made to Democratic senators behind closed doors on Tuesday. In what seemed to be a last attempt at stopping the Iran bill, he was telling Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee not to worry about Obama’s veto — as long as they got the changes that were being discussed, they could go ahead and vote for the bill.

But Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that the White House’s last-minute lobbying suggests it was very concerned about any bill, up until a final committee vote. Secretary of State John Kerry argued against the measure in its original form in a classified briefing with senators just before the Foreign Relations Committee convened and unanimously approved it, though he was careful not to threaten an Obama veto.

“I would not minimize anything that happened,” Corker said in an interview Wednesday. “Why did they oppose it so strongly if it’s such a minimal thing?”

What Kerry was doing in individual calls with members, according to sources familiar with the conversations, was laying the groundwork: The bill as originally proposed was not acceptable, but if lawmakers were to make the changes the White House wanted, it would be a different story.
Senate Democrats aren’t disagreeing that the White House came out ahead.

As Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) put it, if a deal can’t keep one-third of the Senate on board, “then it’s really a bad agreement.”

Still the legislation carries risks for the president and requires the administration to keep Congress closely informed as negotiations continue — and for years afterward.

The bill requires quarterly reports from the administration to Congress on Iran’s adherence to the deal. If Obama isn’t able to certify that Iran is complying, Congress could quickly vote to tighten sanctions. The next president could also re-evaluate whether Iran is complying and come to the opposite conclusion of Obama, potentially reversing the deal.

The Corker proposal will also inject uncertainty into the White House efforts to complete an agreement. It’s hard to imagine dozens of Democrats in both chambers voting against the deal as presented by Obama earlier this month, but the fragile framework is being portrayed in different ways by the United States and Iran.

Just as with the public fit that Obama and his aides threw over the letter that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sent with 46 other Republican senators — the legislative machinations were more for domestic political purposes than to reassure Iran — the administration believes that Tehran and the other international partners recognize that the White House would have to find some way to keep Congress at bay.

“We obviously don’t discuss the specifics of our congressional conversations with other countries, but we did convey to them throughout this process that we were committed to implementing an agreement if we can get to one, and that we would keep working with Congress to see how we could make this all work,” said a senior administration official.

Democratic leaders aren’t operating under the assumption that the president’s deal will automatically be safe if and when a final deal is complete.

“Keep in mind that the War Powers Resolution was passed over the veto of President Nixon. There comes a moment when the Congress asserts itself,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Asked whether he could envision a scenario in which Democrats override Obama’s veto of a resolution of disapproval: “I wouldn’t rule it out.”

One potential rift flagged by lawmakers, though, would be if Iran calls for immediately lifting congressional sanctions. On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani emphasized on Twitter that if sanctions don’t end immediately, there won’t be a deal. But the Obama administration insists it would lift sanctions only in phases.

Congress might override a veto “if the deal is inadequate. For example if it had a provision that said all the sanctions went away on Day One,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. “I don’t think the president would take that deal. But if that was in the deal, I don’t think Congress would go along with it.”

Still, Democrats struggled to think of a deal that would prompt two-thirds of Congress to oppose it.
Republicans had hoped to make it easier to block an agreement with Iran by classifying it as a treaty requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate to ratify. But Democrats never would have come on board with anything that made congressional approval a requirement, which meant Corker had to hammer in the reality to his colleagues: This bill was the best they were going to get.

“I would have preferred that it require congressional approval. But I think this is some progress. It’s something we could work with,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) called the compromise “short of the ideal” but “acceptable.”

Democrats and Republicans who’ve long pushed Corker’s bill say that functionally it’s no different than in February, when it was introduced and promptly met by a veto threat. But the White House says it won important concessions from Republicans, including the softening of a requirement that the U.S. certify that Iran is not sponsoring terrorism. The period for congressional review was also shortened.

But the guts of the proposal remain in place, including the ability for Congress to block the lifting of sanctions.

Though perhaps half of the Senate GOP Caucus is likely to vote against any deal, a number of Republicans remain privately undecided on whether they would vote to disapprove of an Iran deal.
“In the aftermath of an agreement, it is highly unlikely that Congress could put together a veto-proof majority to override a deal. I cannot see more than a handful of Democrats voting against the deal,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a centrist think tank. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if some moderate Republicans such as Bob Corker evaluated the agreement on the merits and considered voting for it.”

But the potential for embarrassment on an international stage remains even if Congress can’t muster a veto-proof majority. If Obama is forced to use his veto pen, that would mean the motion of disapproval had survived a filibuster in the Senate and that at least a half-dozen Democrats opposed the deal. That level of disapproval in Congress could undermine the perception of the agreement on the world stage.

“I’m not saying that a motion to disapprove will even be the step that’s taken,” Corker said. “But in the event that something did occur of that nature and there were 60 votes and he vetoed it, it hugely diminishes the effectiveness” of the Iran agreement.

-Originally published on Politico