Hot summer on Iran awaits Obama, US Congress
WASHINGTON - Politics is the art of looking for trouble,” quipped Groucho Marx and this certainly applies to the standoff between US President Barack Obama and the US Congress over the Iran nuclear agreement.
Congress aggressively inserted itself into the world powers’ negotiations with Iran when the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations unanimously advanced a bill that would give Congress an up-or-down vote on any deal with Iran reached this summer.
Despite the White House’s grudging acceptance of the measure, it is a setback for Obama. The administration has tried for five years to keep Congress at arm’s length from the Iran negotiations. The Obama administration conducted more than 180 briefings and phone calls with members of Congress in an attempt to head off any legislative action that undermines the president’s ability to conduct his foreign policy agenda.
But the White House finally acknowledged that it has neither the support nor the political capital to keep Congress completely out of the Iran process, forcing Obama to negotiate with the Senate to find mutually acceptable legislative language.
The administration realised it could not stop the measure, which had secured the bipartisan support of 67 senators — enough to override a presidential veto. Many Democrats backed the bill as a constitutional prerogative for Congress.
The administration was able to bargain for a few face-saving amendments, including a guarantee that no new sanctions would be imposed on Iran before June 30th, and removal of a provision that mandates Iran to stop terrorist attacks against Americans before the nuclear deal could be signed.
Democratic senators close to the White House, such as Tim Kaine, D-Va., are supporting the bill. Kaine told the Los Angeles Times that Obama “has the best of intentions … but this is too big and complicated” to be executed without Congress.
The bill gives Congress a month to review a final deal with Iran and stipulates that such a deal must be reached by July 10th. During the 30-day congressional review period, Obama cannot lift any US sanctions on Iran.
Congress is then given the right to an up-or-down vote on the agreement. If legislators reject it, confrontation is inevitable.
Several scenarios are possible if an agreement with Iran is reached and they all end in a showdown between the White House and Congress.
“I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell this framework will get approved by Congress after review,” Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicted on Fox News.
Obama is walking a very fine line by allowing Congress a vote on the deal but he hopes to deprive the legislative branch of a veto-proof majority that could kill the deal. Obama needs the support of 34 senators (out of 100) and 146 representatives (out of 435) to veto a congressional rejection of a deal with Iran.
A conceivable scenario is that a deal is reached with Iran then rejected by Congress but that action is vetoed by Obama. Some Democratic senators who support granting Congress a vote on the deal could end up approving the accord at the point by refusing to override the veto.
“If the deal ends up looking a lot like the framework, I think the president will be able to sell it,” Kaine told Politico.
In the event of confrontation with Congress, Obama will have to sell any Iran deal to the American public. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that 49% of respondents said they approve of the United States negotiating directly with Iran, but 62% said they want Congress to have final say over the deal. These could be alarming numbers for the administration if it faces a prolonged battle in Congress.
For better or for worse, the train of the Iran negotiations must pass through Congress this summer. While the Republican majority will try to make sure this is the train’s last stop by terminating any deal they find untenable, the White House is determined to ensure that the fate of any agreement is decided in the Oval Office.