In the aftermath of the recently reached framework understanding on Iran’s nuclear program, the agreement’s fate on American soil could rest in the hands of a small group of federal legislators.
On April 14, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee will decide on whether to send the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 to a full Senate vote. If passed, the bill would require the Obama administration to submit the final nuclear deal — for which world powers (including the U.S.) and Iran have a June 30 deadline — to Congress for review. Sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the review bill is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 20 senators.
American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris said that “Congressional review of a final deal with Iran, whenever it might be achieved, is essential.”
“Otherwise, we could face the possibility that the U.N. Security Council, including current member nations like Malaysia and Venezuela, gets to vote on the Iran agreement, but not elected officials from our 50 states,” said Harris. “Understandably, that might not go over well at all with the American people.”
If the Foreign Relations Committee advances the bill, the legislation goes to the Senate for an initial cloture vote, in which three-fifths (60 of 100 senators if all are present) approval is needed to bring the bill for an actual vote. A majority of the senators present for the vote then need to vote in favor of the bill for it to pass. Since virtually all of the 54 Republican senators are expected to back the Corker-Menendez bill, and with nine Democrats co-sponsoring the measure, it is expected to pass smoothly in the Senate.
If that happens, the bill goes for a vote in the House of Representatives, where a simple majority is needed to pass it. The bill then would move to President Barack Obama’s desk for a signature or veto. If Obama vetoes the bill — as he has threatened to do — both the House and Senate would then require two-thirds majority votes to override the veto. This is typically achieved with 290 House votes and 67 Senate votes, depending on how many legislators are present for the vote in each Congressional chamber.
Amid opposition to the bill from the Obama administration, Senate Democrats last week proposed modifications to the legislation, including removing a requirement that the administration prove Iran is not involved directly in the sponsorship of terror attacks against America. Another proposed change seeks to eliminate, or at least shorten, a provision barring Obama from lifting sanctions against Iran while Congress reviews the bill for 60 days.
Corker has indicated that he is confident the review bill will receive support from as many as 65 senators — meaning that, with 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto, the outcome could come down to the decisions of just a few senators. For some Democrats, approving or rejecting the review bill comes down to choosing between their prioritization of the Iran nuclear issue and their loyalty to Obama.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Jewish legislator who on March 26 announced his co-sponsorship of the Corker-Menendez bill, reiterated his support for the measure after the framework was reached on April 2.
“This is a very serious issue that deserves careful consideration, and I expect to have a classified briefing in the near future,” Schumer told Politico in an interview published April 6. “I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement, and I support the Corker bill, which would allow that to occur.”
Zionist Organization of America National President Morton A. Klein went on to praise Schumer’s “strong, principled public stand in support of Congressional oversight of any deal that the Obama administration may conclude with Tehran.”
Another Democrat strongly supporting the review is U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who said in a statement in February, “I believe Congress should weigh in on the content of the deal given the centrality of the Congressional sanctions to the entire negotiation and the significant security interests involved. This legislation sets up a clear and constructive process for Congressional review of statutory sanctions relief under a standard that is appropriately deferential to the executive branch negotiating the deal.”
Besides Kaine, the other Democratic members of the Foreign Relations Committee have made comments indicating a variety of positions on the bill. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has raised concern about the legislation, saying in a statement, “Now that all parties have agreed to a framework, Congress has a choice: support these negotiations or disrupt them and potentially jeopardize this historic opportunity to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
A spokesperson from Boxer’s office said that the California senator had introduced an alternative to Corker’s bill, the Iran Congressional Oversight Act of 2015, which lays out specifically how Boxer would like Congressional review of the Iran deal to work. The alternative bill was co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tom Carper (D-Del,), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Al Franken (D-Minn.). Feinstein has been critical of Israel’s opposition to the framework deal, telling CNN that the agreement does not threaten the Jewish state’s survival.
“I don’t think it’s helpful for Israel to come out and oppose this one opportunity to change a major dynamic, which is downhill — a downhill dynamic in this part of the world,” said Feinstein.
Menendez, meanwhile, was recently indicted on federal corruption charges — allegations that some have called politically motivated given his defiance of Obama on Iran policy — and has been replaced as the Foreign Relations Committee’s top-ranking Democrat by U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). Notably, Cardin has not signed on as a co-sponsor to the Congressional review bill nor legislation proposing new sanctions against Iran (the Menendez-Kirk Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015).
But in a statement issued April 2, Cardin said that Congress “has a role to play” in the negotiations process with Iran. He said he looks forward to “reviewing all the details of this long-sought agreement.”
In another statement also issued on April 2, Foreign Relations Committee member U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said Congress must be heard in the process of reaching a final deal with Iran, but warned that he could drop his support for the review bill if Republican senators allow the Democrats’ proposed changes.
“If I become convinced … that the bill as amended, given the debate, is really nothing more than a partisan vehicle for killing the prospects for a deal, I won’t support that,” Coons said on April 7, Reuters reported.
Elsewhere among the Foreign Relations Committee’s Democrats, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) called the April 2 agreement a “positive development” and said she is looking forward to “closely reviewing the framework,” without indicating whether or not she supports the bill or not. Shaheen was one of several Democratic senators who blasted Senate Republicans for their letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month. The Republican letter stated that any nuclear deal is contingent on Congressional approval and warned that the deal could expire after Obama leaves office.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has said in a statement that Congress “needs to allow the administration to continue to have the space to negotiate the final agreement, and therefore should not pass legislation which would only complicate the progress towards a diplomatic solution.” U.S. Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) have not indicated specific positions on the review bill. In October 2013, Markey warned that the U.S. “should not relax the sanctions one inch while Iran’s intentions are still unknown,” Foreign Policy reported. On April 5, Murphy praised the framework deal in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“It’s true that this deal doesn’t turn Iran from a bad guy into a good guy,” Murphy said. “But it’s a little bit of rewriting of history to suggest these negotiations were about all of the other nefarious activities of Iran in the region.”
David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), said that CUFI has “always believed that Congress has a responsibility to review any nuclear deal with Iran, and that the Corker-Menendez bill is the best vehicle to ensure that Congress performs this duty.”
“The disturbing details of the framework announced [April 2] demonstrate that this Congressional review is the only thing standing between us and a very dangerous new world,” said Brog.
Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies,” said that Obama’s opposition to Congressional review could be construed as a “betrayal of public trust.”
“If he feels confident that his is the wisest choice, why is he not confident that he can convince the Congress of this — as other presidents of both parties have regularly done over matters of supreme importance to the safety of the nation?” Muravchik asked.
But with enough votes to override a veto, the Senate could render Obama without a chess move.
“Any senator that fails to support Corker-Menendez will be called upon to explain why they chose to sit out the most important foreign policy issue of our day,” Brog said.
Jacob Kamaras and Sean Savage contributed to this report.