With an accord potentially days away, the typically restrained Foreign Relations committee head and other critics get more vocal.
Days away from a potential nuclear deal with Iran, senior Republican senators are plotting a strategy to undermine the multilateral accord just as the Obama administration tries to sell it to a skeptical Congress.
For weeks, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Republicans on his Foreign Relations Committee have gleaned fresh intelligence from classified briefings with senior administration officials and policy experts — information they intend to use against the White House when it pitches the plan to lawmakers.
Corker has told President Barack Obama it’s “breathtaking” that his administration has allegedly backed off its insistence on aggressive inspections of Iran’s nuclear plants, a key outstanding issue in the talks. Along with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Corker has ratcheted up demands for disclosure of a classified document articulating the long-term future of Iran’s nuclear development program.
In a private conversation this spring, Corker told Secretary of State John Kerry he can define his legacy by walking away from a “bad deal.” And Republicans including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are calling on Kerry and the Obama administration to suspend the talks in light of the stated insistence by Iranian leaders that sanctions be lifted immediately after an agreement is reached and that inspectors be barred from military sites.
If and when a deal is inked, GOP leaders are weighing a legislative strategy that would force Congress to vote on a motion of approval, a move that would be designed to show that only a minority of lawmakers back the nuclear plan. That could embarrass the president, even if he persuades 34 Senate Democrats to help him sustain a veto and keep the accord alive.
For Obama, the activity points to a treacherous road ahead in Congress if his administration manages to strike an accord in the coming days. Republicans are attacking the potential agreement as dangerous to national security, and GOP presidential candidates are vowing to abandon it if they win.
In a series of interviews recently, Corker said he hasn’t “prejudged” the deal. But the foreign relations panel head, who has had an amicable relationship with the White House, acknowledged he’s now trying to raise pressure on the administration to change the terms of the accord after learning of details he finds unsettling.
“Knowing that the administration appears to be continuing to cross red lines that they previously have set, we want to point that out and hopefully stiffen their spines so the deal doesn’t erode further,” Corker said.
Corker asserts that Iran, at a minimum, must disclose the military dimensions of its nuclear program and allow international investigators unconditional inspections of nuclear facilities. Anything short of that should bring painful economic sanctions, he says.
Other Republicans are even more critical.
“We’re so far away from where we started from in these negotiations,” said the hawkish Graham, who is running for president. “We’re trying to make sure that the deal that’s being cut is a deal that’s worth a damn.”
Under the April framework agreed to in Lausanne, Switzerland, between Iran and six world powers, sanctions would be relaxed in exchange for increased monitoring and restrictions on the growth of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Negotiators have until Tuesday to reach a deal, though the talks are widely expected to slip into July.
Congress will get an additional month to review — and disparage — the deal if negotiators go past July 9, a distinct possibility.
The White House said the emerging agreement is sticking closely to the terms of the initial framework that officials say would significantly curb Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
“To be sure, in any final deal, we’ll be holding ourselves, and Iran, to the understandings we reached in Lausanne,” said Ned Price, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council. “All parties to the negotiation are well aware of what is necessary for a final deal, including the access and transparency that will meet our bottom lines. We won’t agree to a deal without that.”
Corker has been careful for much of this year to not antagonize the president and his allies in Congress. He refused, for example, to add his name to a March letter to Iranian leaders penned by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and signed by 46 other GOP senators that was widely seen as undermining the White House. Corker then negotiated a congressional review bill that passed Congress with almost no dissent, a major feat given the acrimony surrounding the subject.
And just last week, Corker’s committee sped a package of Obama’s ambassadorial nominations to the Senate floor, a quiet but important nod of deference to the administration.
But Corker has been shedding his restraint in recent days and weeks. In TV appearances, he has accused the administration of “caving” and “weakening” its negotiating stance.
“I do feel it moving in a nonpositive direction,” he told POLITICO last week. “And I feel like one of my responsibilities is to share publicly those concerns, and privately.” Corker said he’s urging the White House to wait out the June 30 deadline to leverage a better deal from Iranian leaders.
“It does feel like Kerry really, really, really wants this deal,” Corker said in a lengthy interview in his office in May, recalling telling the secretary of state: “‘John, it’s just as much of a legacy to walk from a bad deal.’”
Congress would have at least 30 days to review a nuclear agreement under the review process set up by Corker’s legislation. It would choose either a resolution of disapproval or a motion of approval. In order to scuttle the agreement, two-thirds of both chambers would have to vote to override a presidential veto — unlikely, at best.
Still, a resolution of approval that barely registered 40 votes in the Senate would broadcast to critics across the globe that the American public disapproves of the deal — not the message the White House wants to send.
Strong public opposition could also embolden lawmakers to renew a bipartisan push for stiffer sanctions on Iran; they’ve been close in the past to a veto-proof majority for that in the Senate. In a sign of a future hawkish push, Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) last week introduced a bill to renew terrorism-related sanctions on Iran for another decade.
Congress could also try to use the appropriations process to undercut the agreement, an increasingly realistic scenario given the Oct. 1 government funding deadline.
Republicans say the half-dozen briefings that Corker held on the Iran negotiations in June — three closed and three open — have reinforced and in some cases exacerbated their concerns about the talks.
“We’re ceding to the Iranians, basically, over time,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Every day, the Iranians have more of what they want and we have less than we want. From the briefings, I’ve got a lot of concern.”
“It’s going to be a disaster, this deal,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), another committee member, after attending a briefing.
Skepticism from Democratic hawks is rising as well. Menendez, who was the Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat until April, when he stepped aside because of a federal indictment that he’s now fighting, told Kerry in a letter Friday that he shouldn’t accede to Iranian demands on inspections and sanctions relief.
In an interview, Menendez joined Corker in raising alarms over a classified document on Iran’s long-term nuclear plans that neither senator has seen but both say they’ve heard about.
“There supposedly is, at this point, a confidential document on what Iran would be allowed to do in terms of its nuclear program that has not been shared,” Menendez said. “Let me just say I have not seen it in any iteration.”
At least one Republican senator, Arizona’s Jeff Flake, is breaking the other way, a rare show of support within the GOP as the nuclear talks head toward a possible conclusion.
“Frankly, better,” Flake said when asked how he’s feeling about negotiations with Iran after sitting in on several briefings in recent weeks. “Nothing’s final; we haven’t seen any final agreement. But I’m encouraged.”
This article was written by Manu Raju & Burgess Everett for politico on June 29, 2015. Manu Raju is a senior congressional reporter at POLITICO. Burgess Everett is a congressional reporter for POLITICO. Previously he covered transportation policy and politics for POLITICO Pro and was a co-author of Morning Transportation. He’s also worked as a POLITICO Web producer and contributor to the On Media blog.