Democratic Chasm in Congress Widens Over Obama’s Nuke Deal
Policy + Politics

Democratic Chasm in Congress Widens Over Obama’s Nuke Deal

With a Senate showdown looming over a tentative U.S.-Iranian agreement that thwarts Tehran’s nuclear ambitions over the next decade, some Democrats are trying to placate President Obama by modifying legislation that grants Congress tough review authority. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets next week to debate a bill co-authored by Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). It would give Congress 60 days to review the Iranian nuclear deal before Obama could begin lifting economic sanctions against Iran. 

Related: Schumer Bucks Obama, Gives GOP Iran Plan a Green Light 

Despite Obama’s concerns about congressional meddling in sensitive high-level talks with Iran and five other countries, the Corker-Menendez bill enjoys broad bipartisan support – including from Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer (NY) and Tim Kaine (VA). 

Still, a few Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the new ranking Democrat on Foreign Relations, and Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, want amendments to allay White House concerns about the measure scuttling the nuclear talks. 

Coons, another member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has introduced an amendment to eliminate a requirement that the administration must periodically certify Iran isn’t involved in sponsoring terror attacks against the U.S., according to Politico. Coons and others think the anti-terrorism provision is an extraneous demand – one also difficult to ascertain in the murky world of terrorist activities. 

Related: Why the Iran Nuke Deal Could Mean Lower Gas Prices 

Another proposed amendment would shorten or eliminate the provision preventing Obama from lifting legislative sanctions while Congress is reviewing the deal. Cardin has signaled his determination to rewrite portions of the bill that might handcuff the president and further complicate his task if he decides to finally sign off on the agreement. 

Cardin, a liberal Democrat and close ally of the Obama administration, succeeded Menendez, a foreign policy hawk and sharp critic of the Iranian nuclear deal, as the committee’s ranking Democrat. That changeover occurred after Menendez was indicted last week on political corruption and bribery charges. 

Cardin hasn’t specified the precise demands he’ll make to soften the legislation, but he told reporters last week, “I want to make sure whatever review process we put in place is consistent with the terms [of the Iran framework].” 

Obama has said he’ll confer closely with Congress before the final agreement is hammered out in June. But he has also indicated he’ll use executive authority to render a final decision on forging ahead. Republicans and some Democrats are concerned he appears too eager to sign a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with a longtime enemy – one still listed on the U.S. State Department’s terror list. 

Related: Obama Turns to Corker to Sell His Iranian Nuke Deal

As a measure of the rising tensions within the Democratic Party over this issue, Tim Kaine of Virginia, a former governor and Democratic party official, said yesterday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that the White House has taken the position that “Congress shouldn’t be weighing in” on the Iran deal. 

When asked how the White House has reacted to his support of the Corker-Menendez bill, Kaine replied, “They don’t like the bill, and they don’t like me being on the bill, and they’ve made that very plain.”

“My argument to them is, look, you’re negotiating over a congressional statute,” Kaine added, referring to the economic sanctions against Iran that Congress approved. “That is the core of this negotiation – what will Iran do to get out from under statutory sanctions. And if you’re negotiating over a congressional act, Congress is going to be involved. The only question is will it be according to some deliberate process, or will it be under free-for-all rules. I think we’re trying to set up our deliberate process.”

Related: Netanyahu Sounds Off on Tentative Iran Nukes Deal

The delicate negotiations may hinge on how successful Corker is in assuring Democratic co-sponsors and some undecided senators that the bill would not automatically jeopardize the fruits of more than a year of intense negotiations. Obama has described this as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to curb the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.   

In the event Coons, Cardin, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and other Democrats are unable to change the bill in committee next week, Corker and his majority GOP colleagues are certain to send the measure to the Senate floor for action. Once there, Republicans will need to garner at least 60 GOP and Democratic votes to pass the bill and 67 votes to override an almost certain presidential veto. 

Corker, a soft-spoken political dealmaker, has said he’s open to compromise with the Democrats. But he’ll also insist on legislation that preserves the right of Congress to review the nuclear agreement and preserve or even increase economic sanctions against Iran if necessary. 

“Given that Obama appears to be digging in his heels, I think Corker has some incentives to go a little farther than he might have been willing to go under other circumstances to increase his chances of getting to 67 [votes]. He’s going to need those votes,” said William Galston, a political expert with the Brookings Institution. 

“I think Corker is willing to go the extra mile as long as he doesn’t have to give up the guts of what he’s proposing – because the guts of what he’s proposing are strongly supported by a number of significant Democrats, including Chuck Schumer and Kaine,” Galston added. “These are not exactly anti-administration gadflies. These people are at the heart of Obama’s support.” 

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: