On Iran, Conservatives Have No Endgame

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When the White House said it would sign the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, Republicans initially crowed that President Obama “blinked” by conceding that Congress has a say in any deal with Iran. But once conservatives read the fine print, attitudes began to shift.

“[A]t best toothless” now argues The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, who supports efforts to give the bipartisan bill “teeth” via amendments that would add new conditions to the nuclear agreement, conditions that would surely be rejected by Iran. Washington Post columnist and former Bush administration official Marc Thiessen goes further, urging Republicans to “[b]low it up,” because what’s also known as the Corker-Cardin bill doesn’t make explicit approval by Congress necessary for the Iran deal to proceed. It only provides for a congressional review period that briefly delays Obama’s ability to lift sanctions.

The angst from the right may bubble up to the surface this week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly is prepared to pull the plug on the amendment process and move to a final vote. That would violate his pledge to oversee an open, freewheeling Senate floor. But he wants to prevent Sens. Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton from forcing votes on amendments backed by Kristol that, if passed, would prompt a White House veto.

McConnell can probably ram the bill through the Senate; along with Democratic support, he retains the backing of prominent hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham, who insists having no congressional review period strengthens Iran’s hand in the final round of negotiations. But for skeptical conservatives, a review period is small beer compared to stripping Obama of his waiver authority, and with it, his ability to unilaterally put the Iran deal in motion. Rubio, eager to distinguish himself in the presidential race, could play on those fears, and stoke a conservative backlash that could endanger the bill’s passage in the House.

Unfortunately for the anti-Iran hawks, they are in a lose-lose position. Enacting the Corker-Cardin bill may not give Congress the power to stop Obama, but neither does defeating it.

What they haven’t come to grips with is that Obama has the power to indefinitely waive sanctions on Iran, because Congress gave that power to him.

All the various sanctions bills passed by Congress, including those passed with bipartisan votes during Obama’s presidency, grant waiver authority to the executive branch. (And one of the main sanctions laws expires completely at the end of 2016.)

Not only does Obama have that authority under current law, his negotiations with Iran are premised on him using that authority. If Congress didn’t want him to do that, it shouldn’t have given him the power in the first place, especially since lawmakers can’t revoke it without a veto-proof supermajority.

So, just as shutting down the government in 2013 left Obamacare untouched, the only thing defeating the Corker-Cardin bill would accomplish is leaving current law, and Obama’s authority, as is.

The silver lining for fans of Article I of the U.S. Constitution is that with or without Corker-Cardin, and no matter what executive agreements are made with Iran, Congress retains the final say on when Congress-passed sanctions are permanently lifted (though it has no say on United Nations and European Union sanctions, which are also part of the international deal). Obama can only waive sanctions so long as he is around. The Iranians didn’t need Sen. Cotton’s letter to know that Obama can’t control what happens in 2017 and beyond.

Why isn’t that sufficient to soothe the hawks? Because while the next president and the next Congress could negate the deal, everyone knows they won’t if, after 18 months, Iran is in compliance and the rest of the world remains on board. As the Iranian foreign minister intimated last week, for the U.S. government to arbitrarily and unilaterally withdraw would be an incredibly belligerent and destabilizing act that would risk, if not deliberately instigate, all-out war.

That’s why the hawks want to short-circuit the deal now, before it gets off the ground. But they can’t without Democratic help, and even those Democrats who have expressed reticence about the emerging deal have (as predicted here) proved unwilling to undermine the president.

In sum, conservatives cannot get what they want through the legislative process, nor can they by thwarting the legislative process. That leaves them two choices as Corker-Cardin moves through Congress. They could raise hell in hopes it will move public opinion, despite polls consistently showing support for the deal. Or, they could calmly accept the political and legal reality – a reality of their own making –and move on to other issues.

They are conditioned to choose the former. They might want to consider giving the latter a try.

Bill Scher is a senior writer at Campaign for America's Future, executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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