Obama administration objections to a letter sent by 47 Republicans to Iranian leaders hasn’t shaken support for legislation that would give lawmakers a say on any deal the U.S. negotiates on Iran’s nuclear program.
Democrats in the Senate who have joined with Republicans on a proposal to exert Congressional oversight of an Iran agreement haven’t backed off even after the March 9 letter drew rebukes from President Barack Obama and White House officials.
Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation with Tennessee Republican Bob Corker and others to require congressional review of an Iran agreement, said he remains “strongly supportive” of the bill even as he criticized Republicans for injecting partisanship into the debate and undercutting the negotiations.
“This had a lot of momentum in terms of getting bipartisan sponsors,” he said in an interview. He called the letter a stunt that had made some Democrats “more wary.”
While initial support is holding, the political rancor in Washington now surrounding the Iran negotiations may complicate the job of Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, as he tries to cobble together enough Democratic votes to overcome a sure veto of the legislation from Obama.
Republicans hold 54 seats in the Senate and 10 Democrats have said they’ll support the measure, though only after the end-of-the-month deadline for the current round of negotiations among the U.S., five other world powers and Iran. That’s three votes short of the number needed to override a veto.
Corker was one of seven Senate Republicans who didn’t sign the letter.
“I didn’t view the letter as helping to achieve an outcome that I would like to see, which is us having an opportunity to appropriately weigh in on an arrangement that is so important to our nation’s future and to the stability of the Middle East,” Corker told reporters Tuesday.
Corker is one of the lead sponsors of the bill, which would require congressional review of any deal with Iran and block the administration from suspending congressional sanctions for 60 days. Sanctions would have to remain in place if Congress voted a resolution disapproving the deal and then overrode an expected presidential veto within the 60 days.
Given that there’s no agreement yet with Iran, it’s too soon to know what Democrats will do, Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a phone interview.
“It’s one thing to oppose an agreement you haven’t seen,” he said. “You can’t count the votes ’til the voting’s over.”
The Republican letter also has become part of the 2016 presidential campaign.
The four Senate Republicans considering a bid for the party’s nomination in 2016, Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, all signed the letter. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, also considering presidential runs, added their names on Tuesday.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, called the letter “out of step with the best traditions of American leadership.”
Republican Tom Cotton, the first-term senator who was the driving force behind the letter, remained defiant Tuesday after being accused by Obama and his allies of trying to undercut the U.S. position in an international negotiation.
In the letter, the Republicans warned Iran’s leaders that any deal with Obama might last only to the end of his term and could be reversed by his successor or modified by Congress.
“We’re making sure that Iran’s leaders understand if Congress doesn’t approve a deal, Congress won’t accept a deal,” Cotton, 38, said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. “Because we’re committing to stopping Iran from getting a weapon.”
The administration has said that the agreement being discussed would cut back Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and ensure that Iran is a minimum of one-year from a breakout, the time needed to assemble the fissile material for a weapon, for at least 10 years. Obama has said any deal also would require Iran to submit to a strict inspections regime.
For Cotton that’s not enough. He said Iran should have no right to enrich uranium and the U.S. must keep a credible military threat on the table to enforce the demands.
Peter Raven-Hansen, a national-security professor at George Washington University Law School in Washington, said the Republicans’ letter was clearly intended to influence the talks.
“Now we have 47 people plus the president purporting to speak for the United States,” Raven-Hansen said. “That really is an extraordinary departure” from past practices.
He said it’s not unusual for presidents to make such agreements and no matter what actions are taken by lawmakers, “it may still be binding and in effect in international law.”
Cordesman said Congress has lots of options if it wants to slow the process.
“If you want to make life living hell for everybody, there is absolutely no doubt that both the Congress and administration can do that,” he said. “The more the Congress presses, the more the administration has to justify and explain.”
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