There will be a good deal of self-congratulation in Washington in the coming days over the passage of a Senate bill giving Congress the right to vote on the upcoming nuclear deal with Iran. Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell has pushed the bill sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker and ranking member Ben Cardin through the legislative gauntlet. The leadership tells us the bill is a tribute to their willingness to put aside their differences as it passed by a whopping 98-1 margin. In doing so, they have said that though it is not ideal, it is better than nothing. But they are wrong. Though the principle of forcing a vote on the most important treaty negotiated by the U.S. in a generation is important, the toothless compromise they have accepted is a sham that virtually guarantees the deal’s ratification. The bipartisanship that everyone will celebrate is nothing more than a Republican acknowledgment that President Obama can’t and won’t be stopped.
Much of the backslapping about the passage of the bill is rooted in frustration about years of gridlock in which the two parties — or rather President Obama and Congress — have been hopelessly at odds. The 2013 government shutdown over the inclusion of an effort to repeal ObamaCare in the budget stands as a monument to just how far both Republicans and Democrats are willing to go to get their way. Thus, anything that can be portrayed as an effort by the sides to take half a loaf rather than none is seen as a triumph for common sense. There is something to be said for that way of thinking on a lot of issues. But what has happened during the debate about the nuclear threat from Iran illustrates that much of what passes for bipartisanship is merely an effort by which the losers pretend they haven’t been taken to the cleaners while the winners agree to let them engage in such a charade.
That is exactly what has happened on the Iran deal bill.
It should be recalled that coming into 2015, it appeared that there was an overwhelming bipartisan majority in both Houses of Congress for increased sanctions on Iran that would strengthen the administration’s hand in the nuclear negotiations. But President Obama had no interest in getting tough with his negotiating partners and bitterly opposed the idea. Once it became clear that he would make enough concessions to the Iranians to entice them to agree to a framework deal, the focus of those seeking to respond to events was on passing a bill that would force the president to submit any agreement to Congress for ratification. The president was as opposed to that idea as he was to more sanctions arguing that he need not be trammeled by the Constitution’s requirement that any treaty receive a two-thirds positive vote in the Senate.
The White House campaign to thwart critics of the Iran deal at first focused on generating partisan Democratic umbrage at the Republicans for inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak against appeasement. Once the deal was done, that effort morphed into a more straight-forward one that aimed at rallying Democrats behind the president’s chief foreign policy goal: détente with Iran. Yet even many Democrats were queasy about the idea of not being able to vote on the Iran deal.
The White House recognized this and instead of heading off a vote altogether it concentrated its efforts on persuading Democrats to prevent the Republicans from drafting the measure in such a way as to make it meaningful. Thus, the final draft to emerge from the committee did not include any provisions that would make the administration accountable for Iranian compliance or altered behavior. When the president saw that a “clean” bill would be passed with a veto-proof majority, he happily signaled that he would sign rather than veto it.
In theory, this should make everyone happy and be a triumph for the ethos of bipartisanship. But the reason why the White House likes the clean bill is precisely because its passage does nothing to interfere with a policy of appeasement of Iran. By excluding any provisions from the bill that would ensure that Iran stop supporting terrorism and threatening Israel’s destruction and ensure a stricter crackdown on their nuclear program, there is no real accountability to the process. Even more than that, by allowing the measure to be framed as a Congressional vote rather than a treaty ratification, it gives the president the ability to veto the eventual vote on the deal and for it survive with only a one-third plus one margin to prevent an override.
As it stands, the Iran deal provides Iran with two paths to a bomb, one by easily evading its restrictions (which may not be enforced with tough inspections that Iran won’t allow) and another by patiently waiting for it to expire all the while continuing its nuclear research. In addition, there is no meaningful provision for snapping back sanctions in the event of Iran violating its word either in the deal or in the Congressional bill. And that’s assuming this or a future Democratic administration would ever admit that Iran was cheating.
Thus, all we are left with here is a charade of accountability that will let members of Congress vote on a deal with little likelihood that this will do anything to stop it. By accepting this as better than nothing all the Republicans are telling us is that they know they can’t beat Obama but want to show they’ve tried.
In 2013, centrists and members of the Republican leadership derided the absolutist stand of Senator Ted Cruz and others who supported the shutdown as being both suicidal and unrealistic. They were probably right in that instance but this time it is Cruz and his fellow presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio who have tried unsuccessfully to strengthen the will are the ones who are correct. In this case, something isn’t better than nothing since it gives the Iran deal the pretense of being ratified by Congress without any real oversight. If the Congressional leadership wanted to provide us with a better example of why bipartisanship isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, they could not have done better than this bill.