The big news today out of Washington isn’t that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker managed to appease enough Democrats to lock up what will probably be a veto-proof majority for a bill mandating a Senate vote on any final Iran deal. The real story is that the White House has now announced that it won’t, despite months of threats to do so, veto the amended bill. Their excuse is that the Democratic amendments Corker swallowed alter the bill so much that it no longer constitutes much of an obstruction to the president’s plans to pursue détente with the Islamist regime. That is, as Corker rightly insists, mostly spin. But the question we should be asking is whether conceding that Congress has a right to an up-or-down vote on the agreement will give the administration the room to maneuver that will enable it to pass the deal despite the clear sense of Congress that it is a disaster.
The concessions Corker made are not insubstantial, but by themselves they don’t destroy the basic principle that he and Robert Menendez, the former ranking member of the committee, sought to establish. Despite the effort of the White House to portray the deal as something that doesn’t fall under the normal constitutional rubric of a treaty that must be submitted to the Senate for approval, Corker-Menendez will allow Congress the final say on a nuclear pact. That’s a victory for critics of the president’s diplomatic strategy as well as a blow struck for the sort of constitutional principles that this president has routinely trashed on issues such as environmental regulations and illegal immigration.
But by stating that he’ll sign Corker-Menendez, Obama may have won over a large number of Democratic senators who were planning to vote for Corker-Menendez as well as a bill promising more sanctions on Iran in the event that the diplomatic process fails. As Max Boot wrote earlier, the bill strengthens the president’s hand in the final negotiations with Iran since he can say that he is responsible to Congress and won’t be able to make as many concessions as he might have liked. But assuming that he does continue to make enough concessions to enable Iran to finally sign on to a written version of the agreement by June, the concessions the president won today will be useful to him as he seeks Senate approval for the deal.
One can view the White House waving the white flag on this issue as a signal defeat and in that sense it is. But in doing so the president has strengthened his ability to rally Democrats and perhaps some wavering Republicans—like Corker—to vote for the Iran deal once it is finished. Indeed, so long as they have their say on it, Democrats and Republicans may decide that procedure has precedence over substance and wind up giving the president what he wants anyway.
It may be that the White House move on Corker-Menendez ensures that Obama will get most Democrats to back the Iran deal no matter how awful a bargain it turns out to be. In addition, by forcing Corker to cut in half the amount of time the Senate has to study what will be a complicated document (from 60 days to 30) and by eliminating other issues from the mix—such as forcing the administration to certify that Iran is not supporting anti-American terrorism—he has simplified the president’s task in gaining the agreement’s eventual passage.
The main point here was never just about the president trying to act like a monarch and ratifying a treaty without Congress but whether the Senate could exercise its constitutional responsibilities in a way that could help get a better deal from Iran. The pact Obama has agreed to provides Iran with a path to a bomb both by easy cheating and by adhering to its terms provided they have the patience to wait until it expires.
Corker can, as Max noted, take a bow for working in a bipartisan manner and getting something passed. But just as the Iranians learned they could bulldoze the president in an impasse, what opponents of his appeasement must ponder is whether this is a precedent for future negotiations with the White House that will bring the Tennessee Republican over to the president’s side in a final vote on an Iran deal. If the Senate is outmaneuvered in the months ahead and winds up belatedly ratifying a weak deal, we may look back on today’s events and say this was the moment when the president finally wised up and locked up sufficient support for appeasement.