Critics Hit Rubio for Iran "Poison Pill"

Critics Hit Rubio for Iran "Poison Pill"
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Sen. Marco Rubio isn’t backing down from his pro-Israel amendment to the bill giving Congress the right to review a potential Iran agreement even though some senators are calling it a “poison pill,” claiming it could tank the legislation. 

Rubio’s amendment states that in any agreement between the Obama administration and Iran over the country’s nuclear weapons program, Iran must recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Though the amendment itself is something that would likely receive unanimous support in the Senate, many senators disagree with attaching it to this legislation. The argument is that it’s something Iran is unlikely to do, and that it could undermine or even destroy the negotiations. It’s also likely to dismantle the bipartisan coalition pushing to give Congress a role in any potential agreement. 

Despite the criticism and negativity surrounding his amendment, Rubio took to the Senate floor Wednesday for a passionate speech defending its merits and calling for the Senate to vote on it. Rubio tried to dispel one of the main arguments against his amendment: that while it may be important, it is unrelated to the negotiations, which focus solely on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“The reason why the existence of Israel as a Jewish state is directly tied to this deal is simple: we are about to turn over billions of dollars into [Iran’s] hands and we have every reason to believe that they will spend a significant portion of that money to destroy our strongest and most important ally in the region and one of our most important allies in the world,” Rubio said. 

The underlying legislation is an agreement that was reached earlier this month by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker and ranking member Ben Cardin to give Congress a vote to approve or disapprove of any agreement the administration reaches. It received a 19-0 vote in committee, and the two senators have worked hard to prevent amendments being attached to their legislation that would ultimately ruin the bipartisan support, and potentially bring back a veto threat from the White House. 

Cardin said he doesn’t disagree with the language of Rubio’s amendment, but thinks the results would be “counterproductive” to Rubio’s goal. Speaking to a group of reporters Wednesday afternoon, Cardin said the amendment would do one of three things: cause the bill to fail, prevent the U.S. from negotiating any deal with Iran, or give Iran the upper hand during the negotiations. 

“All three are horrible results,” he said. “It’s counterproductive to the intent what the amendment is.”

Rubio originated the amendment before the committee held its vote on the legislation, though he agreed to not submit it in committee over concern it would have destroyed the bipartisan agreement reached there. He said during that hearing, however, that he intended to bring it up again on the floor. 

Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the Senate has gotten out of the habit of passing a bill out of committee and sticking with it on the Senate floor. He pointed to the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill in 2013 and said that process was similar to this Iran legislation.

“There were some amendments that in a perfect world I would have loved, but you’ve got to stick with the bill,” Flake said. “That’s what you’ll see here -- I think, I hope.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has been pushing for Congress to have a role in the negotiations, said he agrees with the intent of Rubio’s amendment, but he won’t support it if it seems likely that it will dismantle the legislation. 

“I concur with that concept -- I just think it could unravel the coalition,” Graham said. “I don’t disagree with what [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] said or what Marco’s trying to say, but the goal to me is not to send a message, it’s to create a process where the American people can understand what this deal’s about and the opportunity to vote on a good deal or vote down a bad deal. At the end of the day, the Iranians could mouth the words, ‘I believe Israel has a right to exist.’ It doesn’t mean much to me.” 

Graham also said he isn’t concerned about any potential political backlash from voting against a pro-Israel amendment.

“I’ve been in this box many times," Graham said. “I'm still standing. I don’t think anybody is going to accuse Lindsey Graham of being anti-Israel. I don’t think anybody can make that case persuasively.”

In a move that may help senators hesitant about the amendment to vote against it, AIPAC, the U.S. pro-Israel lobby group, is encouraging senators to support the underlying bill without Rubio’s amendment. “We request that senators bear in mind the need to retain the bipartisan consensus this legislation enjoys and that they refrain from supporting provisions that could harm that bipartisan support,” an AIPAC source told RealClearPolitics. 

Rubio, speaking on the Senate floor, said he understands that senators may oppose his amendment because they believe it will hurt the underlying agreement. The idea that his amendment might not receive a vote, however, he called “unacceptable.”

“If you say that you believe Israel has a right to exist but you’re voting against it because you don’t want to unravel the deal, people will respect it. You can make your argument. But vote,” Rubio said. “Don’t tell me we can’t have votes on these things. You can argue that we shouldn’t pass them and I’ll argue against you, but don’t tell me we can’t even vote on it.”

Several amendments to the bill have already received votes. An amendment to declare any agreement a treaty, which would subject it to a two-thirds vote in the Senate to be approved, was rejected 57-39 Tuesday. An amendment forcing the Obama administration to certify that Iran is not supporting terrorism against the United States failed Wednesday 54-45. Both had a majority of Democrats and some Republicans join together to defeat them.

Cardin, who usually has a calm demeanor, fired off a heated response to Rubio’s speech on the floor, speaking passionately against Rubio’s amendment. 

“All of us are committed to Israel,” Cardin said. “But let’s think about what’s the most important thing for Israel, and that is having a strong agreement that prevents Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. Let’s focus on that. Because that, I think, this bill helps us achieve.”

Rubio, for his part, kept calm in his response to Cardin. “All I’m asking for is votes on these amendments and then everyone is free to vote the way they want and for the reasons they want,” he said.

Debate on the bill is expected to continue into next week, with more votes on amendments, although it's unclear if Rubio's will be included.

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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