Congress Will Have Say in Iran Deal, Panel Votes

Congress Will Have Say in Iran Deal, Panel Votes
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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee made a strong statement Tuesday about Congress’ role in the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran, voting unanimously to give lawmakers the right to approve or disapprove any final agreement with Iran, if and when one is reached.

Not a single senator on the 19-member committee of 10 Republicans and nine Democrats voted against the measure that would allow Congress to review for 30 days any agreement reached on Iran’s nuclear program before choosing whether to accept or reject it. In another win for Congress, the White House indicated President Obama would sign the legislation that made it through committee, though he had previously issued veto threats on the original bill.

It’s unclear when the legislation might come to a vote in the full Senate, but the strong bipartisan support in the committee makes it clear it would have healthy support in the full chamber, barring any substantial changes or poison pill amendments. House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday morning he was “hopeful” the Senate would move the bill in the next couple weeks and expected the House to take it up soon thereafter.   

The vote came just weeks after the administration released initial parameters for an agreement, reached after months of extensive negotiations in Switzerland. A final written and signed deal would have to be completed by a June 30 deadline.

Support for the measure came together after committee chairman Bob Corker, a Republican, and ranking Democrat Ben Cardin slightly altered the legislation, making it more palatable for the White House and Democrats on the panel. Chief among the changes were slimming the review period from 60 to 30 days and removing language certifying that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. Though no members disagreed with the notion, some Democrats argued the terrorism certification was unrelated to the nuclear negotiations and leaving it in the bill could jeopardize an agreement.

In any piece of legislation, obviously, there are things that members would like to see different, but I think we’ve reached a balance here that is very, very appropriate,” Corker said in his opening statement. “Many times, let’s face it, this was not something that the administration favored, but Congress prevailed.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said before the committee meeting that an agreement similar to the one that ultimately passed “would be the kind of compromise the president would be willing to sign.”

Though the original measure sponsored by Corker and Sen. Bob Menendez – who was recently temporarily removed as ranking member of the panel after being indicted on corruption charges – had some Democratic support, there were those on the left who remained skeptical. The negotiation and compromise between Corker and Cardin ultimately brought them on board.

Sen. Barbara Boxer said she supports the new bill. “I believe the former bill would have disrupted and upended the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, and I believe this new bill will not do that,” said Boxer, who had been a vocal critic of the bill before the changes.

But she added there is the chance amendments and changes made to it on the floor will force her to withdraw that support when it reaches the full Senate.  

That had seemed likely in committee before Corker and Cardin reached an agreement. Several Republican senators had amendments ready that would have seriously jeopardized support for the bill among Democrats, including one from Sen. Marco Rubio that would have forced Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist and one from Sen. Ron Johnson that would have declared any agreement a treaty, requiring a two-thirds vote from the Senate to ratify it. Both senators ultimately declined to bring up those amendments during the committee in deference to the compromise the panel’s leaders reached.  

Rubio, speaking to reporters before the committee meeting, said it was clear his amendment might hurt the final outcome of the bill, which would ultimately leave Congress with nothing stipulating its role in the negotiations.

“Not putting in place a congressional review process would be worse than one that perhaps is not ideal,” Rubio said. “Ultimately, the alternative is not to do anything, and that would play right into the hands of what the administration is asking Congress to do, which is to have no role whatsoever.”

Johnson had a similar sentiment during the markup. He criticized the limited role Congress was giving itself but said he would still support it. He argued that if Congress voted to disapprove a final agreement and Obama vetoed that disapproval, it would take only 34 senators supporting the deal – enough to beat an attempt to override a veto – to allow the deal to go forward.

“I appreciate the fact that at least this gives us a role,” Johnson said. “It is an incredibly limited role. It is a role with very little teeth.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, in a briefing with reporters Tuesday morning, made essentially the same point about the support a final agreement would need from lawmakers, saying it would take just more than a third of senators for Obama to move forward with his deal.

“If the administration can’t persuade 34 Democratic, or 34 senators of whatever party, that this agreement is worth proceeding with, then it’s really a bad agreement,” Coons said.

In the end, only one amendment came up during the markup, sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, to reinstate the terrorism certification, though it failed 13-6.

Many of the Democratic senators who supported the Corker legislation, including Coons, indicated they were still hopeful a deal with Iran could be reached before the June 30 deadline. Members of the panel made it clear that support for congressional review of an agreement did not necessarily translate into not supporting the agreement, if one is reached.

“I think it’s very clear that this vote on the review process is not at all a reflection on how members feel on the underlying negotiations,” Cardin said. 

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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