The basic framework for an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is in place. Looking ahead, the principal challenge seems daunting enough: over the next three months of negotiations, the United States, our allies, and our negotiating partners will try to finalize a detailed package, effectively adding meat to the bones.
And to be sure, this phase will include its own difficulties, which may derail the entire effort. But far from the negotiating table, it’s important to never underestimate the capacity of the United States Congress to turn a good situation into a bad one.
For most independent experts, assessments of the preliminary framework tend to range from good to surprisingly good to astonishingly good. Among congressional Republicans, those parameters vary from bad to “Neville Chamberlain” to oh-God-oh-God-we’re-all-going-to-die levels of opposition.
The question, however, is not what GOP lawmakers intend to do; the now infamous “Iran letter” from 47 Senate Republicans already makes clear just how far the congressional majority will go to sabotage American foreign policy. Rather, the pressing matter at hand is whether Democrats will help the Republicans’ sabotage campaign. Politico reported late Friday:
Despite the White House’s strong push to rally its congressional allies behind an Iran deal, Senate Republicans think they’re close to having enough Democratic support to move forward with a bill that would give lawmakers the final say over any nuclear agreement with Tehran, according to interviews with key members of Congress.But that Democratic support likely comes with a cost, members said. Many Democrats are demanding that the measure be amended so it doesn’t kill the deal before it can be finalized by a June 30 deadline.
Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, seemed to sum up the views of many on Capitol Hill when Politico asked if he still supports the pending bill. “ ‘Yes, but…’ is my answer,” he said.
It’s worth understanding exactly what this bill is all about.
At issue is a proposal from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) – a fierce Obama critic, but someone who did not sign Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) recent sabotage letter – that would empower Congress to have final say on whether an international agreement moves forward.
In practical terms, the Obama administration is trying to navigate tricky international waters, negotiating with China, Russia, Iran, the UK, Germany, and France to create an effective policy. Under Corker’s plan, after those talks are complete, the Republican-led Congress would have the authority to effectively veto the whole package, protecting economic sanctions that the White House intends to waive, consequences and international commitments be damned.
President Obama, of course, would veto such an effort, but plenty of congressional Democrats also want the legislative branch to have some say over the future of the policy. How many Democrats? According to Roll Call, the Corker bill now has a total of 66 supporters.
To override a presidential veto, the bill would need 67 votes. In the House, the numbers look pretty similar.
What’s more, while international negotiators intend to work on hammering out substantive details over the next three months, Corker and his allies have no intention of waiting that long – the conservative Tennessean intends to move forward with his proposal literally next week, when Congress returns from its two-week spring break.
That makes this week critical. A variety of Democrats want to expand Congress’ role in the process, but they’re also reluctant to destroy a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move forward with an agreement that benefits the United States. Indeed, many of the Dems who signed onto Corker’s bill did so long before last week’s announcement. Now that they’ve seen how strong the framework is, will these Democrats still be eager to help Republicans kill it? The White House, along with much of the world, hopes not.
So, as this week gets underway, here are some questions to keep in mind:
* Will the number of supporters for the Corker bill, currently at 66, go up or down?
* Will there be a single GOP lawmaker in either chamber who follows the experts’ lead and endorses the framework, even temporarily?
* On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) was the ranking member, and he’s about as opposed to the White House’s policy as any Republican. In the wake of Menendez’s criminal indictment, and Sen. Ben Cardin’s (D-Md.) promotion, how much more difficult will it be to advance Corker’s bill?
* A variety of Dems will spend this week asking Republican proponents of the Corker plan to scale it back. Will Republicans go along? What might those changes look like?
* Public opinion appears to be on the White House’s side, and new polling shows Obama getting a bump in support in the wake of the framework’s announcement. Will that sway lawmakers? Will congressional Democrats undermine a Democratic president’s deal that enjoys strong support from Democratic voters?
For more on this, guest-host Steve Kornacki had a fascinating discussion with Steve Clemons about this on Friday’s show. It’s worth your time.