The Senate on Thursday swept aside challenges from two freshman Republican superstars and passed carefully crafted legislation giving Congress authority to review the terms of any final agreement between the U.S. and Iran that would force Tehran to curb its nuclear weapons program in return for lifting onerous economic sanctions that date back decades.
Freshmen Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, an announced presidential candidate, and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an aggressive newcomer who has emerged as a leading conservative voice on defense and foreign policy, threatened to derail the measure with “poison-pill” amendments unacceptable to the Obama administration and the Iranians.
In the end, though, Rubio backed down and supported the legislation while Cotton continued to protest the Senate’s deliberations and cast the lone vote against it.
The final vote of 98 to 1 was a triumph of sure-footed, bipartisan foreign policy making over political gamesmanship. And despite its shortcomings, the bill would give lawmakers something important they didn’t have until now: the opportunity to carefully review and pass judgment over the final details of a nuclear non-proliferation agreement designed to thwart Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon for at least the next decade or more.
Without the bipartisan legislation that emerged recently from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, President Obama would be under no obligation to share the specifics of the deal with lawmakers, including highly classified documents, and he could lift sanctions against Iran on his own timetable.
Under the bill that now goes to the House for approval, Congress would have at least 30 days to consider a final 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.
“In summary, no bill [means] no review,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who was central to putting together the legislation. “No bill, no oversight. I think the American people want the United States Senate and the House of Representatives on their behalf to insure that Iran is accountable, that this is a transparent process and that they comply.”
Corker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the ranking committee Democrat, used this logic in recent days to win the backing of recalcitrant Republicans and Democrats. Many of them voiced concerns that more restraints on the president were needed to make sure the Iranians comply with the final agreement and that it doesn’t leave Israel and other Middle Eastern allies vulnerable to an eventual nuclear attack if Iran reneges on the agreement.
The real turning point came late last week after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) crushed a nascent rebellion led by Rubio and Cotton, who sought to hijack the amendment process in order to push through their amendments that would have torpedoed the bill by drawing a veto from Obama. The freshmen were demanding measures that would put an end to Iran’s nuclear program along with a demand for Iranian leaders to publicly acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.
The president had only reluctantly supported the bipartisan deal fashioned by Corker, Cardin and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) out of concern it might complicate or hinder his negotiations with Iran and five other countries in reaching a final agreement by the end of June, the current deadline. But the White House was adamant that no other killer amendments be added.
When Corker and Cardin complained that some GOP senators were attempting to disrupt the “balance” of the carefully constructed piece of legislation, Cotton and Rubio surprised them and McConnell last week by invoking a rarely used parliamentary procedure to force the Senate to vote on their amendments.
Cotton, a former House member and combat war veteran, was riding high after a series of high profile political stunts, including drafting a letter to the Iranian leadership signed by 46 Republican senators, warning that Congress or the next administration could undo any nuclear deal that they struck with the Obama administration.
Seemingly flourishing in the limelight, the Arkansas freshman engaged in a nasty Twitter exchange with the Iranian foreign minister, calling him a coward for sitting out the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. And he lectured his Senate colleagues on the floor last week, saying that if they didn’t want to vote on amendments that he and Rubio were promoting, they should “host a talk show” or find another line of work.
Rubio was less combative but equally insistent, warning that the administration had been too accommodating in its talks with Iran and that without a tougher oversight bill, the very existence of Israel would be in doubt. But the two had overplayed their hand, and efforts by Corker and Cardin to arrange for a handful of votes on other amendments collapsed.
With other tough issues awaiting Senate action this month, McConnell moved to cut off debate and bring the bill to a final vote this week without consideration of other amendments.
As the Senate moved towards a final vote this afternoon, Rubio – seeing the handwriting on the wall – dropped his resistance and spoke out in favor of the bill. In discussing the military tinderbox in the Middle East and prospects for a nuclear arms race if Iran isn’t reined in, Rubio said, “You’re talking about . . . one of the most unstable regions on this planet.... So I hope that we’re going to get a good deal. I’m not hopeful that we will. But I think that we’re better off if we have this process in place. And so I hope that this bill passes today, so that at least we’ll have a chance to weigh in on an issue of critical importance.”
Rubio voted with the majority to end the debate and then approve the legislation. By contrast, Cotton was unyielding to the end and cast the lone vote against the bill.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) signaled that the legislation would easily pass in the House. “This important, bipartisan legislation will ensure that Congress has a role in reviewing any potential agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” he said in a statement. “Our goal is to stop a bad agreement that could pave the way to a nuclear-armed Iran, set off a regional nuclear arms race, and strengthen and legitimize the government of Iran — which threatens Israel and other allies in the region, as well as supports terrorism throughout the Middle East.”
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