The wisdom of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to fast track legislation requiring the administration to submit any nuclear deal with Iran to Congress for approval may depend on how seriously you take the noise coming out of the nuclear talks that an agreement may soon be reached. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told NBC News yesterday that the countries were “very close” to a deal. At the same time, a “senior State Department official” said an “understanding” with Iran about the outlines of a deal by the end of the month was the goal of the talks. Both statements make it clear that the administration is expecting that it will have something it can tout as a success. If true, that puts both McConnell and Senate Democrats in an interesting position until the March 24 date for the negotiations to conclude. If, as they have promised, Democrats will filibuster votes on the bills requiring Congressional approval and the imposition of harsher sanctions on Iran, until then, they may be facilitating the outcome they oppose. But if McConnell pushes too hard on the issue now, he may be ruining the chances of a bipartisan veto-proof majority for these measures after the deadline.
McConnell is taking plenty of flak for deciding to use Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress about the threat from Iran to push forward the legislation proposed by Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Bob Menendez for a quick vote. That’s because weeks ago Menendez and other Democrats publicly told the White House they would hold off on their plans to push for any legislation on Iran until after the March 24 deadline for the end of the current round of talks expired. That concession came in the wake of the furor over the announcement of Netanyahu’s speech that was treated by Democrats as an insult to President Obama hatched by Republicans and the Israeli government.
However, this willingness to wait a few weeks was not a sign that Menendez was any less interested in opposing the president’s appeasement of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Menendez has been among the fiercest advocates of a tougher stance on Iran in the Congress. But McConnell’s move embarrassed him and other Democrats who were trying not to burn their bridges to the White House in spite of the disagreement. Indeed, even some Republican supporters of the anti-Iran bills worried that the majority leader was endangering the chances of maintaining the bipartisan coalition that backs these measures. As Senator Lindsey Graham noted, anything that lessened the chances that large numbers of Democrats will eventually vote for the two bills may be a mistake.
That’s the same reason so many in the pro-Israel community have worried about the way the administration has shamelessly manipulated a controversy over the Netanyahu speech that the White House did so much to promote and exacerbate. Until the announcement of the speech, The Corker-Menendez and the Kirk-Menendez bills seemed to have at least a fighting chance of veto-proof majorities. But the ability of the White House to manipulate the false issues of a breach of protocol and the supposed “insult” to President Obama from the speech, that enabled the administration to pick off wavering Democrats from the ranks of sanctions supporters.
The smart play would seem to be for McConnell to wait until March 24 and then bring both bills to the floor in the hope that a large number of Democrats will buck the president and give Congress the right to a say about an Iran deal.
But the urgency about stopping the rush to détente with Tehran isn’t just a function of McConnell’s desire to wrong-foot the president as the clock winds down until March 24. It is entirely possible that by then a deal or at least an “understanding” with Iran will be in place making it even easier for the president to persuade Democrats not to support measures intended to limit the impact of an agreement with Iran.
As Netanyahu rightly pointed out in his speech, the stakes here couldn’t be greater and have little or nothing to do with the feud between the prime minister and the president. A nuclear deal that leaves Iran in possession of all of its nuclear infrastructure including thousands of centrifuges and which hinges on a Western belief that a relatively short “breakout” period to a bomb is enough of a deterrent to prevent the Islamist regime from building a weapon is a disaster for the security of the West, moderate Arab states and Israel. If, as even President Obama hinted, the deal will include a sunset clause that will end sanctions and any restrictions at some point, then what is happening is not so much a Western seal of approval on Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state but a deferred acquiescence to it getting a bomb.
That makes it imperative that the terms of the deal be debated by Congress and subjected to an up or down vote. Passing such a bill after Iran signs will be harder so its easy to understand why McConnell wants one now. But that may be a terrible mistake.
Although time is a factor here, the only chance to do something to check the president or at least to hold him accountable is to get 67 votes in place in favor of the two Iran bills. That will require considerable Democratic support. Though some of the Democrats who made the promise to Obama may be wavering, Menendez deserves some deference from McConnell. Without his help, the bipartisan majority on Iran will collapse. After all, even if a deal is made with Iran, that won’t be the end of the debate. President Obama doesn’t need any help from Republicans that will make it easier for him to avoid being called to account.
Worries about diplomacy outstripping the ability of Congress to pass laws designed to impede the president’s reckless disregard for the truth about Iran are real. But rushing these bills won’t solve the problem. Counting on Iran doing what Obama wants it to do may not be a safe bet meaning that the need for action on March 24 may be just as if not greater than it is today. The American public is also likely to be supportive of any effort to restrain Obama on Iran. The bogus claims about the Netanyahu speech notwithstanding, Congressional leaders need to avoid taking actions that will make it harder for Democrats to back legislation seeking to slow the rush to appeasement.