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Chapman’s News & Ideas Iran: Sen. Corker Plays His Hidden Hand

It’s the equivalent of a domestic diplomatic coup.

Many people have been frustrated with the Republicans in Congress for not “doing” anything to prevent a ruinous nuclear agreement with Iran. Sen. Tom Cotton did get 47 GOP signatures on a statement warning that a Presidential agreement without Congressional approval could be over-turned easily by a new President (in less than two years). And that did sober up the Iranians. But it was still only 47 senators. Why were so many Democrats silent, and where was the GOP Leadership?

Well, the answer is, they were biding their time. Whereas the Administration’s diplomacy has been conspicuously clumsy and wrongheaded, Sen. Bob Corker, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has been exceeding diplomatic–in the best sense. The result is today’s triumphant bi-partisan committee vote to require Congressional approval of any agreement between President Obama and the Iranian regime. This probably will come as a shock in Tehran. But there still appears to be a bi-partisan majority in Congress for clear headed foreign policy.

Sen. Corker deserves credit for the way he managed this elaborate process. Omri Ceren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. who keeps a listserv well-advised of daily developments of the Iran nuke story, covers today’s exciting developments in the message below. The best part is the collapse of White House resolve to veto a bill once it was clear the veto would not be sustained. At last!

By Omri Ceren

That was quick. Apparently everything had indeed been worked out this morning. One token failed amendment, one vote on everything else in a single manager’s package, and then a quick vote. 19-0.

The big news from this afternoon isn’t actually the vote. It was already clear by late this morning that the legislation would get out of committee with strong bipartisan support, although I don’t think anyone was willing to predict unanimous support. As I wrote in the morning’s email with the Albright report, today’s compromise between Corker and Cardin guaranteed that the markup would be a snoozefest (let me know if you didn’t get that email, by the way, because the report at the bottom is now one of the most important policy document circulating around).

Instead the breaking news is that the Obama administration flipped this afternoon, just before the markup started, and withdrew its veto threat. Josh Earnest disclosed the move to reporters at today’s White House briefing. In retrospect this was probably just simple math. After the Corker-Cardin compromise, a Senate Democratic staffer told the New York Times that a veto-proof majority was now assured (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/15/us/senators-reach-deal-on-iran-nuclear-talks.html). McCarthy had already told reporters that he had the votes he needed in the House to sustain a veto (http://www.politico.com/story/2015/04/iran-bill-house-veto-proof-majority-116919.html). Someone in the White House seems to counted to 67 and 290, and made the call.

The White House spin is that the Corker-Cardin compromise substantively altered the legislation, so that now just ‘a vote to vote later’ on sanctions. The spin is going to be tough to sustain, and it’s not yet clear what part of the legislation the White House is even claiming was substantively altered. One change reduced the time Congress gets to review a deal from 60 days to 52 days. Another change removed language linking sanctions to Iranian terrorism (Barrasso offered an amendment to put the restriction back in, which failed 13-6 and had Corker quipping that if Iranian terrorism kills Americans they’re going to get missiles not sanctions). Neither of those seem particularly dramatic.

The substantive problem for the White House spin is that this bill locks in what Corker-Menendez was always supposed to lock in: it gives Congress the ability to intervene after an Iran deal is signed by the parties but before it is implemented by Washington. The legislation prohibits the President from implementing the provisions of a deal immediately, and instead provides lawmakers with 30 days to review its details. If Congress acts to block the deal, the President will presumably veto that action, at which point lawmakers will have the remainder of the 52 days to try to override the veto.

Corker more or less rolled his eyes at the spin during today’s markup: “I think the reason the administration in the last 2 hours has chosen the path that they’re now taking, is the number of Senators that they realized were going to support this legislation.” He had already brushed aside the idea that there were any substantive changes: “This legislation is exactly the congressional review we’ve been working on since day 1.”

The political problem for the White House spin is that it looks like they lost big. They fought against oversight for months, up to and including accusing supporters of being warmongers (also something that came up during today’s session). The National Iranian American Council – one of the groups that has been at the front of the White House campaign to block Congressional action – issued a press release blasting the vote and declaring “the compromise amendment that was struck by Senators Corker and Cardin does not change the fundamental problems with this bill.” Beyond the substance, it’s just very difficult in DC to spin a loss like this. Votes spin themselves. The White House talk about substantive changes is probably aimed as much at preventing that narrative from taking hold, as it is anything else.