In a rare display of bipartisan unity, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a bill giving Congress a key role in the final stages of nuclear negotiations with Iran. They also made concessions vital to placating President Obama and top negotiators.
The 19-to-0 vote followed intense negotiations between committee chair Bob Corker (R-TN), ranking Democrat Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, a handful of other lawmakers, and administration officials who had resisted congressional intervention in the Iran talks.
The U.S., Iran and five other countries reached a tentative deal in Switzerland on April 2 to restrict the growth of Tehran’s nuclear program for the next decade. In return, the U.S. and its allies will lift strict sanctions against Iran.
Yesterday’s vote was for a measure guaranteeing that Congress will have the chance to review and vote on a final deal before President Obama can begin to lift sanctions.
“This shows how leadership that is committed to the principle of bipartisanship in foreign policy can achieve success even in highly polarized partisan circumstances,” William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, said in an interview. “This is a major achievement on Sen. Corker’s part. It reflects his willingness to negotiate without yielding on what he regards properly as the core principle of congressional accountability.”
While there’s no guarantee the unanimity will hold once the bill reaches the Senate floor for debate and a vote, yesterday’s action was a vital breakthrough after weeks of maneuvering by GOP leaders and the White House over the Iranian nuclear talks.
Committee members spent much of yesterday’s meeting praising Corker and Cardin for steering the legislation through treacherous minefields.
“There’s no such thing as perfection, but I think the two of you have struck just the right balance,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), told Corker and Cardin.
“Only Congress can change or permanently modify the sanctions regime,” said Cardin, who served as an intermediary between the administration and Republicans as they haggled over changes.
Other Senate Democrats were instrumental in pulling the deal together. Those include Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who is in line to become the next Democratic leader, and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a former governor and Democratic Party leader who withstood intense White House pressure to abandon his support for the bill.
Many insisted the unsung hero was Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the former committee chair and ranking Democrat who stepped aside last week after being indicted on federal political corruption and bribery charges. Menendez was long a thorn in the administration’s side because of his criticism of the Iranian negotiations and insistence the Senate play a central role in approving or rejecting the final deal.
For some, yesterday’s action was a reminder that for decades dating back to late 1940s when Republican chairman Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan was chairman, members of the Foreign Relations Committee prided themselves on bipartisanship .
Corker, 62, the former executive and mayor of Chattanooga, acknowledged he knew little about foreign policy when he first joined the committee. But since taking over as chair in January, Corker has displayed extraordinary negotiating skills and eye for bipartisanship.
Whether his handiwork survives remains to be seen. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the newly announced presidential candidate, and other conservatives want amendments to try to protect Israel’s interests and assure Iranian compliance in the deal. Others, like freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), will try to torpedo the agreement.
“When things like this happen – bipartisanship at the committee level – I always say wait until it gets to the floor,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “Clearly the amendment process was controlled by Corker and Cardin presumably. That works at the committee level,” he said, but not so well on the Senate floor.
For example, in December 2012, a U.N. treaty to ban discrimination against people with disabilities was defeated in the Senate by a 61 to 38 vote after it was overwhelmingly supported in the Foreign Relations Committee. The treaty, backed by Obama and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS), fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for confirmation. Dozens of Senate Republicans objected it would impede the ability of people to home-school disabled children.
“There’s a certain degree of solidarity in a committee,” Baker said. “But the Senate has a history of pretty impressive bipartisan actions at the committee level and then things fall apart on the floor, where the dynamic is different.”
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