Senate Heads For a Showdown on Iran Nuke Deal Bill
Policy + Politics

Senate Heads For a Showdown on Iran Nuke Deal Bill

For  a while late last week, a fast-moving bill to provide Congress with the right to review and block a  nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran looked as if it might be derailed. The Senate debate was interrupted Thursday when freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK), in an unusual parliamentary maneuver, brought two highly controversial amendments to the floor, over the wishes of Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN), who is managing the deliberations.

Related: Iran’s Arrogance Complicates Prospects for a Nuclear Deal

Cotton has assumed a leading role among many conservative Republicans in debating the nuclear agreement since he authored an open letter to Iranian leaders last month warning that any agreement that they negotiated with Obama could be reversed by a subsequent administration. He also got into an ill-advised and nasty Twitter exchange with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last week in which Cotton at one point called Zarif a “coward” for sitting out the Iran-Iraq war in the U.S. during the 1980s.  

Cotton has introduced the most controversial amendment that would require the Iranian government to disclose the history of its nuclear program and close all of its nuclear facilities. President Obama, who only reluctantly went along with the legislation to give Congress a prominent role in the final decision making over the Iranian nuclear deal, would certainly veto the bill if it contained that or other such “poison-pill” amendments.

Cotton insisted last week that the proposed amendments were not "poison pills," as critics claim, but "vitamin pills" that will strengthen the legislation, according to media reports.

The betting now is that the Senate will  pass the legislation this week without the amendments. That will require Senate GOP leaders to rebuff Cotton, a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflict, and at least two GOP presidential candidates, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.

Related: GOP and Dems Dig In on Oversight of Iran Nuke Deal 

Senate deliberations could still blow up at the last minute, though. As of late Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had the unenviable choice of either siding with the conservative naysayers and giving them a vote on their amendments  or teaming up with other Republicans and the Democrats to ram through the bill and send it on to the House for consideration.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Monday said it was time for McConnell to file for cloture on the bill and shelve the dozens of pending amendments, including one championed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a presidential candidate,  that would precondition any nuclear deal on Iran’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist. 

"The majority leader should file cloture now to preserve this legislation,” Reid said, according to The Hill. “Destructive members within his own party have forced his hand ….”I support the majority leader in taking this step because it's the only path forward."

Related: Voters Want an Iran Nuke Deal--If Congress Approves

The bill,  crafted by Corker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin, the ranking committee Democrat, was  unanimously approved by the Foreign Relations Committee last month, 19 to 0. 

Under the bill,  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. 

For his part, Rubio is seeking an amendment to require Iran to affirm Israel's right to exist as a precondition of any final deal. Cruz is sponsoring an amendment that would allow Congress to block the implementation of any deal.

Although the current Corker bill would allow Congress to pass a resolution of disapproval, the president could veto it and Republicans opposed to the deal would be hard pressed to secure the votes to override that veto.

According to Politico, GOP leaders were beginning to persuade Democrats to allow votes on the Cruz and Rubio amendments, but Democrats were so opposed to Cotton's proposal that they refused to negotiate on any amendments the White House opposed. Cotton may have overplayed his hand once again as many say he did in authoring the open letter to Iranian leaders signed by 46 Republican senators.

"I would like to have seen more amendments. But in light of the circumstances, that route is now unfortunately over," Corker told Politico. "My sense is we're going to move toward successful passage."

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