Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) a Tea Party conservative and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) a liberal Democrat rarely see eye-to-eye on political matters. But they appear to be in full agreement on an issue that could prevent what President Obama believes is a crowning achievement in foreign policy in his second term.
Paul formally announced his campaign for the 2016 presidential election on Tuesday; Schumer is the anointed next leader of the Senate Democrats. Both men support legislation that would grant Congress the authority to review and potentially block the tentative agreement struck by the Obama administration and Iran on limiting Tehran’s nuclear program.
President Obama has pledged to consult with Congress on the framework before the final agreement is struck in June. But he’s repeatedly signaled he intends to make the final decision on whether to move ahead. Lawmakers of both parties are concerned Obama may be too eager to sign a far-reaching agreement with a longtime enemy that is still listed on the U.S. State Department’s terror list.
“It’s important for Republicans and Democrats who don’t want to give the president kind of a blank check on the Middle East to come together and form [a] bipartisan alliance,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a congressional expert and editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.
“Republicans are going to instinctively oppose most of what [Obama] proposes,” he added. “They need some Democrats willing to make the White House make the case that this is a good deal for the U.S. and for Israel – one of our top allies.”
The preliminary deal reached in Lausanne, Switzerland last week essentially would block Iran from moving ahead on a program of uranium enrichment and developing a nuclear weapon for 15 years. It would also gradually lift the sanctions that have hobbled Iran’s economy.
Obama has called this a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to curb the spread of nuclear weapons in a volatile region. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many U.S. Republican lawmakers say the early deal is seriously flawed and could allow Iran to eventually develop a nuclear weapon that could be used against Israel.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee next week will begin debating a bill co-authored by Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NY). It would give Congress 60 days to review a final agreement before allowing a phase-out of the sanctions.
Schumer, an influential voice in the Iran nuclear debate who represents a large Jewish constituency, signaled this week that he was strongly supporting passage of the bill despite Obama’s opposition.
“This is a very serious issue that deserves careful consideration, and I expect to have a classified briefing in the near future,” Schumer told Politico. “I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement and I support the Corker bill which would allow that to occur.”
Meanwhile, the libertarian Paul, who is struggling to overcome a reputation as an isolationist, declared his support for the Corker bill when he launched his campaign on Tuesday for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
“Conservatives should not succumb to the notion that a government inept at home will somehow succeed at building nations abroad,” Paul said in attacking Obama’s defense policies. “I envision an America with a national defense unparalleled, undefeatable, and unencumbered by overseas nation building.”
The Kentucky senator insisted any Iran nukes deal must be approved by Congress.
“I will oppose any deal that does not end Iran’s nuclear ambitions and have strong verification measures,” Paul said. “I will insist any final version be brought before Congress. The difference between President Obama and myself is that he seems to think you can negotiate from a position of weakness.”
The spectacle of Schumer and Paul singing from the same political hymnal on the Iranian deal cannot be good news for the White House. While the administration insists the framework would thwart Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon for a decade or more, many lawmakers fear it would only postpone Iran’s success in acquiring those weapons. Meanwhile, Iran would restore its economy and be able to extend its influence in the region.
Schumer quietly signed onto the Corker-Menendez two weeks ago, but said little while he and the rest of Congress awaited the outcome of the nuclear talks. Now that summaries of the framework have been released – with some glaring differences in interpretation – Schumer’s emphatic statement that Congress has an important role to play becomes more significant, as Politico has noted.
In short, Schumer – tapped by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada to succeed him as Democratic leader in 2017 – signaled to fellow Democrats that it’s safe to endorse the review bill.
“His motives are going to be different from Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or most other Republicans, but I think there is nervousness on the part of some Democratic Jews that the president is too willing to accept Iranian promises,” said Stuart Rothenberg. “They want to make sure we’ve got a good deal – both for U.S. interests but also to make sure that the president’s overall approach is reasonable. [They want] a long-term delay in Iran’s ability to get a weapon and a clear warning signal if Iranians are proceeding toward firing a weapon.”
A dozen Democratic senators have either co-sponsored Corker’s bill or indicated they could support it. With presumably all 54 Republicans in favor, that would put the measure just one vote shy of a veto-proof majority. Three other Democrats — Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri — reportedly are open to the possibility of voting for the bill.
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