Republican leaders are preparing to clamp down on Sen. Tom Cotton’s efforts to derail a bipartisan compromise on legislation giving Congress review power over a nuclear deal with Iran, clearing the way for it to be passed this week.
The Senate is set to resume work Monday on the long-considered bill, but lawmakers in both parties agree debate on the measure has run its course, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is widely expected to wrap up consideration of the time-sensitive bill and free it from parliamentary gridlock.
“I would like to have seen more amendments. But in light of the circumstances, that route is now unfortunately over,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the bill’s author and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
In a bid to pressure President Barack Obama to take a tougher negotiating line with Tehran, Cotton (R-Ark.) made a surprise move Thursday to try and force a vote on his amendment, which would require Iran to disclose the history of its nuclear program and shutter all its nuclear facilities, and a proposal from Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio that would require Tehran to recognize Israel’s statehood.
But the provisions would disrupt the administration’s ongoing talks with Tehran and revive Obama’s veto threat against the bipartisan bill. And Cotton made his move even though Democrats were considering votes on other contentious amendments, like one from presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) requiring that a nuclear deal with Iran be approved by Congress. Lawmakers were even beginning to discuss how to accommodate Rubio’s demands for a vote on the Israel provision.
Rather than securing those votes, Cotton’s tactics drove Democrats away from negotiating over any more GOP amendments that would draw opposition from the White House. To preserve the bipartisan coalition backing the bill, GOP leaders are expected to shut off debate and the chance to amend the bill, instead of allowing a vote on proposals dubbed “poison pills” by Democrats and some Republicans.
“You’re running into a scheduling problem,” said Foreign Relations ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who supports the underlying bill. “Most likely option right now is to move to” cut off debate, he added.
In an interview after the Cotton-sparked row, McConnell said he’d wanted to vote on Rubio’s Israel amendment but that that’s unlikely now.
“The Democrats do not want to vote on it,” McConnell said. “If I could vote on it, I would.”
Asked if he will move to shut down debate on the bill Monday, the leader suggested he might: “I’ll let you know Monday.”
The underlying measure, which would allow Congress to review a deal with Iran and potentially reject the lifting of legislative sanctions, still enjoys broad bipartisan support and is expected to pass the chamber.
Before Cotton made his move, Corker and Cardin had been working with party leaders to deal with demands for votes on some hot-button provisions. When Cotton jammed his and Rubio’s amendments into the voting queue, those delicate talks ended abruptly.
With support from Democrats, the Senate GOP will get its opportunity to disapprove of any nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States. The popular congressional review bill allows Congress to disapprove of lifting legislative sanctions and requires regular reports on Iran’s compliance with the deal.
But Republican hopes of forcing Obama’s negotiating hand with more stern instructions or making Democrats take politically difficult votes are largely dashed. The collapse of amendment talks offers a silver lining for the deal-cutting Corker, who’s devoted sleepless nights and political capital to moving his Iran bill forward.
Last week, the Senate voted on just two amendments, rejecting provisions that would have required Iran to renounce terrorism and turned the nuclear deal into a treaty that must be ratified by the Senate. Keeping additional hot-button amendments off the floor will preserve the veto-proof majority. Obama had been opposed to the legislation but later said he would sign it after tweaks were made and it became clear it had a veto-proof majority.
“My sense is we’re going to move toward successful passage,” Corker said.
“There are between 70 and 80 members who are very pleased for this process to be over, and they want to pass this bill,” Cardin added. “It’s not just Democrats.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said “it’s pretty ironic” that because of the way the debate has played out over the Cotton and Rubio proposals, it will be the senators’ fellow Republicans who will be blocked from making further revisions.
McConnell told his colleagues at a private lunch shortly after the breakdown on the Senate floor that no decision has been made to cut off debate on the measure. And indeed, there are several scenarios in which McConnell could allow toothless votes on Cotton and Rubio’s proposals or perhaps attempt to lure Democrats back to the bargaining table.
But senators in both parties say the moment has passed. And McConnell is eager to move on to other matters, including free trade, extending the PATRIOT Act’s surveillance provisions and cybersecurity.
“It was a classic case where the members should be heard,” one Republican senator said of the Iran bill. But now, “there may be a point where you have to figure out how to end that opportunity.”
Cruz, Rubio and Cotton huddled in McConnell’s office for a lengthy meeting on Thursday after the floor scuffle. As he left the meeting, Cruz declined to say whether he would vote against ending debate on the legislation. It’s a roll call vote that would test Republicans’ appetite for limiting debate on the floor after complaining bitterly about Democratic Sen. Harry Reid’s strict tactics as majority leader in years past.
“Leadership will have to decide how to proceed,” Cruz said, blaming Democrats for blocking his vote.
After he forced his and Rubio’s issues, Cotton sat at a party lunch among many of his Republican colleagues as they learned they may have lost their chance to get votes on their amendments.
“I think that he understands now the full impact of what has occurred,” Corker said of Cotton.
Caroline Rabbitt, a spokeswoman for Cotton, said the Arkansas freshman was simply using his parliamentary tactics to fight for a “stronger bill.” And she said Cotton hasn’t admitted defeat in seeking votes on his and Rubio’s proposals.
“We can always return to … negotiating the deal they claimed to have been close to reaching,” Rabbitt said. “There is no rule or formality blocking that process from moving forward. It’s only Democratic intransigence.”