In the waning days of the Trump administration, Sen. Ted Cruz has quietly been urging the president to submit both the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement to the Senate for ratification. But not because they would succeed; rather, because they would inevitably fail.
The equivalent of a constitutional tripwire, Cruz’s gambit would force a showdown between the Senate and President-elect Joe Biden. President Trump pulled out of the agreements; Biden has promised to recommit the United States to both without congressional approval. In a letter obtained by RealClearPolitics, the Texas senator is pressing both the president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to submit the pacts before Trump leaves office.
“Your administration has rightly changed course as a matter of substantive policy by withdrawing from both the Iran Deal and the Paris Agreement. This was a great accomplishment for the American people,” Cruz wrote.
“I urge you now also to remedy the harm done to the balance of powers by submitting the Iran Deal and the Paris Agreement to the Senate as treaties,” Cruz continued. “Only by so doing will the Senate be able to satisfy its constitutional role to provide advice and consent in the event any future administration attempts to revive these dangerous deals.”
Cruz has become a stalwart Trump ally, and if the president takes his advice, he could throw a wrench into the gears of the incoming administration before Biden can even fully nominate his Cabinet. The incoming president has promised that he would rejoin the Paris Agreement “on day one,” and pledged to revive the Iranian nuclear deal he helped negotiate as vice president. Republicans, meanwhile, are unified in their opposition to both.
A vote against them would signal GOP opposition to the world and, they hope, undermine any unilateral action by Biden to rejoin the agreements. One senior congressional aide told RCP that sending them to die in the Senate “would be the final nail in the coffin.”
Central to Cruz's argument is the contention that the Paris accords and Iran deal are actually treaties. As such, they are subject to the Senate’s Article 2 “advice and consent” role and require two-thirds of the chamber for ratification.
A 2015 concurrent resolution, co-sponsored by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Whip John Thune, condemned President Obama for joining the Paris agreement without Senate approval and called on the White House to submit it to the chamber. The Obama administration waved away such complaints. Although now more than four years removed, Cruz is banking on lingering Republican resentment to spark last-minute action.
Asked if the Senate would be given an opportunity to sign off on the Paris accords, then-White House press secretary Josh Earnest sidestepped the separation of powers argument. He told a reporter it was “hard to take seriously” gripes about divided government “from some members of Congress who deny the fact that climate change exists -- that they should have some opportunity to render judgment about a climate change agreement.”
Secretary of State John Kerry was similarly dismissive when asked why the administration didn’t seek ratification of the Iran deal. “Well, Congressman, I spent quite a few years trying to get a lot of treaties through the United States Senate, and it has become physically impossible,” Kerry said during a 2015 hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “That's why,” he added. “Because you can't pass a treaty anymore.” Kerry will join the incoming administration as Biden’s “climate czar” where he will be a party to the same fight as old battles become new again.
Cruz isn’t alone in trying to force another showdown. Sen. Lindsey Graham, another Trump ally, tweeted last week that he is working behind the scenes to secure a vote on the two pacts. He warned that rejoining the Iran nuclear deal “would be the most destructive decision a Biden administration could make regarding stability in the Middle East.” Rejoining the climate agreement, he added, would mean “a big win for China and India.”
As Biden continues to signal his willingness to rejoin the Paris Agreement, leaders from 75 countries met at a virtual Climate Ambition Summit last week to lay plans for the coming fifth anniversary of the accords, an event that will be co-hosted by the United Nations in the United States. The president-elect has repeated his promise to lead the country to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, insisting that doing so is “an economic opportunity to create jobs and prosperity at home and export clean American-made products around the world.”
Meanwhile, several other powerful nations are preparing to welcome the U.S. back into the Iran deal with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas insisting that it is “the best instrument” to resolve disputes over Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranians sound somewhat more ambivalent. “Some people say, ‘You are excited for Mr. Biden,’" Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, according to the Associated Press. "No, we are not excited Mr. Biden is taking office, but we are very happy Mr. Trump is gone."
“The upcoming American administration can choose what to do," Rouhani continued. "The path is open. It’s up to them if they are grateful or ungrateful. If they want the right path, it’s ready. If they want the wrong path, that one is ready for them as well.”
If Trump follows Cruz’s advice, Republicans hope to close the path altogether. Either way, the two agreements and arguments over them will likely shape the early days of the incoming administration.