Senate Nearly Unanimous in Backing Review of Iran Deal

Senate Nearly Unanimous in Backing Review of Iran Deal
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After two weeks of rocky and contentious debate, the Senate voted in near unanimous fashion Thursday to pass legislation giving Congress the power to review any agreement between the Obama administration and Iran over that nation’s nuclear program.

Consensus on the bill had been in flux because of frustration from Republicans trying to get votes on their amendments, with Democrats working to avoid any provisions that could damage the measure’s bipartisan support. Despite those issues, the Senate passed the legislation, 98-1, with only Arkansas freshman Tom Cotton voting against it (California Democrat Barbara Boxer didn’t vote).

The tally represented a big win for Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and ranking member Ben Cardin, who worked together to craft the agreement that was able to pass unanimously out of their committee last month, and to keep that compromise together on the Senate floor. The two senators were effusive in their praise of each other in a press conference shortly after the vote.

Corker called the bill “controversial from day one,” and pointed out that the White House had been threatening a veto as late as the day of the committee vote, though the administration ultimately agreed to support the final measure that passed Thursday.

The legislation gives Congress 30 days to review a deal once the full details are submitted to them. They then have the right to approve or disapprove of the deal, or do nothing, which would allow it to go forward. If they disapprove, President Obama can veto that measure, which would require 67 votes to override and actually halt an agreement, an unlikely outcome.

The Corker-Cardin agreement was thrown into question after frustration bubbled up among several GOP members, including Cotton and Marco Rubio, over the lack of votes on amendments. Ultimately, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture on the bill, cutting off debate with amendments still pending. Despite that, Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter and others upset with the lack of amendment votes still supported the final legislation.

Cruz did join Cotton and four others – Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Mike Lee of Utah and Dan Sullivan of Alaska – in opposing the vote to end debate on the bill, though only Cotton followed that up with a vote against the legislation.

“I voted no on cloture because we should have insisted on amendments to put real teeth in this bill,” Cruz said in a statement. “Ultimately, I voted yes on final passage because it may delay, slightly, President Obama's ability to lift the Iran sanctions and it ensures we will have a Congressional debate on the merits of the Iran deal.”

Cotton has been a staunch critic of the administration’s negotiations with Iran, releasing a controversial open letter to Iranian leaders in March warning that a potential agreement could be scrubbed after Obama leaves office. In a statement Thursday, Cotton didn’t address the vote, but did criticize the negotiations. 

“A nuclear-arms agreement with any adversary — especially the terror-sponsoring, Islamist Iranian regime — should be submitted as a treaty and obtain a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate as required by the Constitution,” Cotton said in his statement. “President Obama wants to reverse this rule, requiring opponents to get a two-thirds vote to stop his dangerous deal. But Congress should not accept this usurpation, nor allow the president any grounds to claim that Congress blessed his nuclear deal.”

In the press conference, Corker was asked about his reaction to Cotton’s no vote, and said he didn’t “really have much of one.” He said he has a warm relationship with the conservative lawmaker and defended his decision to vote as he saw fit.

“I could look at it the other way,” he said. “Not focus on one negative vote, but say, ‘Can you believe, after all this, there were 98 yes votes?’”

 House Speaker John Boehner released a statement applauding the legislation and saying he looks forward to the House taking up the measure soon.

“Our goal is to stop a bad agreement that could pave the way to a nuclear-armed Iran, set off a regional nuclear arms race, and strengthen and legitimize the government of Iran – which threatens Israel and other allies in the region, as well as supports terrorism throughout the Middle East,” Boehner said. “I look forward to House passage of this bill to hold President Obama’s administration accountable.”

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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