With the outcome of the sensitive Iran-U.S. nuclear talks between hanging in the balance, Republicans and Democrats are displaying rare party discipline to protect a bill reluctantly backed by President Obama that gives Congress authority to review the final deal.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 14 voted 19 to 0 in support of compromise legislation that would give Congress ample time to pass judgment on any final agreement reached with Iran before Obama could begin to lift sanctions against Iran. Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) and Sen. Benjamin C. Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat, crafted a bill that allayed the fears and suspicions of the White House and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about the intent and likely impact of the legislation.
Until now, there was no guarantee the two parties could hold together and protect the bill once it reached the Senate floor this week. Many Republicans and some Democrats are unhappy with the emerging deal and believe the president may have made too many concessions. Obama is concerned that congressional meddling might torpedo a final deal, and he has vowed to veto the bill if it is laced with “poison pill” amendments at the last minute.
Yet on Tuesday, GOP and Democratic Senate leaders – including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) -- signaled that the bill would likely survive unscathed and go to the House for final passage.
McConnell told reporters at the Capitol that while he has serious reservations about the deal being worked out by the U.S., Iran and five other countries, he strongly supported the Corker-Cardin legislation because it will enable Congress to make an informed judgment on the agreement after receiving all relevant descriptions and classified documents.
“There may be some dissent, but by and large I think the majority of the caucus will support it,” Durbin said.
The apparent united political front in support of the Iran nuclear oversight bill is the latest example of surprising bipartisanship and deal making breaking out on Capitol Hill just 100 days after the Republicans took control of the Senate and House for the first time in nearly a decade.
Senate GOP leaders cut a deal with the White House and Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee on major fast-track trade legislation with virtually no other Democratic support. The Senate recently gave final passage to a bipartisan plan for changing the Medicare formula for reimbursing doctors.
The two parties yesterday negotiated an end to a lengthy impasse over anti-human trafficking legislation that has held up the confirmation of Loretta E. Lynch as attorney general. Republican and Democratic lawmakers also are discussing important bills to strengthen the nation’s cybersecurity, overhauling education laws affecting public schools, and to add new reforms of government surveillance that were sought by Obama.
“The new majority is making a significant difference,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Senate GOP leadership, told reporters yesterday in hailing the political breakthroughs.
Under the bill that emerged from the Foreign Relations Committee last week, Congress would have at least 30 days to consider a final signed agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear program over the coming decade before Obama could waive or suspend any congressionally mandated sanctions against Iran. During that period, Congress could vote its disapproval of the agreement – although such an action would require 60 votes to pass and would be subject to a presidential veto.
With McConnell, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and other Senate leaders on board, many of the 52 other Republican senators are likely to support the bill. Even if skeptics of the deal -- including Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain of Arizona—press for inclusion of damaging amendments, GOP and Democratic leaders expressed confidence yesterday they could block them.
McCain infuriated President Obama a week ago by suggesting that Secretary of State John Kerry was less trustworthy in his interpretation of the content of the tentative agreement with Iran than the supreme leader of Iran. “That’s an indication of the degree to which partisanship has crossed all boundaries,” Obama said at a news conference at the end of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City. “That’s not how we’re supposed to run foreign policy.”
Rubio, who announced his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination a day before the Foreign Relations Committee met, had demanded that Iran declare Israel's right to exist in exchange for eased economic sanctions. Yet as the Foreign Relations Committee began consideration of the bill, Rubio backed down after Corker and Cardin offered substitute language in the bill voicing concern about Israel.
Rubio conceded that an amendment protecting Israel’s security ultimately "could imperil the entire agreement” because of resistance from Iran. But he hinted that he might bring his amendment up again when the bill reaches the floor.
Corker and Cardin, two savvy dealmakers, seemed in general agreement that party discipline will hold in the coming days. Corker, 62, a former business executive and one-time mayor of Chattanooga, acknowledged he knew little about foreign policy when he first joined the committee, but has displayed extraordinary bargaining skills and bipartisanship since taking the reins of the committee in January.
“I am obviously in conversation about trying to keep the balance that we have on the bill now,” he said yesterday, adding that he doesn’t know yet how many amendments his Republican colleagues will offer on the floor.
“We had a great committee meeting, but that was just the first step,” he said. “Obviously we need to move it through the Senate and across the House floor. Obviously that’s going to take a lot of work.”
Cardin, 71, a former Maryland House Speaker and U.S. House member is renowned as an affable legislative workhorse and a stickler for detail. Shortly after Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) was indicted on federal corruption charges, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid phoned Cardin to inform him that he would replace Menendez as the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and would take the lead in negotiating the Iran nuclear negotiation legislation.
“I think in the end Congress is going to come together on this,” Cardin said. “One of the things we tried to do is to prevent this from being a partisan effort. So that the president is in a stronger position and we have a fair chance of achieving our objective of using diplomacy to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. That’s what we’re trying to achieve. And if we have the type of action we had in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – if we can duplicate that or replicate that on the floor of the Senate and the House, we’re going to be in a stronger position to achieve our objectives.”
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