WASHINGTON – Despite a plea from the White House not to proceed, Senate leadership on Sunday recommitted to moving forward swiftly with legislation concerning Iran and its nuclear program as negotiations enter a critical stage in Switzerland.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) on Saturday night received a letter from White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, writing on behalf of US President Barack Obama, detailing the administration’s argument as to why Congress should hold off on legislative action until talks end, in agreement or not, by the end of June.
While Congress has a “role to play” in the eventual lifting of sanctions under any future deal with Iran, McDonough wrote, sanctions law already passed by Congress provides the president with the executive authorities necessary to waive aspects of the restrictions.
Congress ultimately will have a vote to lift those laws in their entirety. But “the legislation you have introduced,” McDonough wrote to Corker, “goes well beyond ensuring that Congress has a role to play.”
McDonough was referring to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, authored by Corker, which would require the president submit a deal to Congress for review, oversight and an up-or-down vote on whether Congress will participate in enforcing the agreement.
“Instead, the legislation would potentially prevent any deal from succeeding by suggesting that Congress must vote to ‘approve’ any deal, and by removing existing sanctions waiver authorities that have already been granted to the president,” McDonough continued.
Within the negotiating room, McDonough argued, it would erode confidence among US allies that American diplomats have “the ability to negotiate this deal,” possibly creating divisions within the permanent five United Nations Security Council members engaged in the talks.
Near midnight, Corker responded in a statement via email to The Jerusalem Post, suggesting no change in his position to move forward with markup in committee once his bill earns a critical mass among Democrats.
“On this issue where Congress has played such a vital role,” the senator said, “I believe it is very important that Congress appropriately weigh in before any final agreement is implemented.”
On Saturday, several senior Senate aides told the Post the Foreign Relations Committee will proceed with the legislation on March 24.
“That’s the window the world was given, and Congress is acting within that window,” one Senate aide close to the matter said. “Post March 24 and absent an agreement, there is no mechanism left to further delay the legislative process from moving forward.”
The committee will mark up Corker’s oversight bill at that time without delay, despite an apparent disagreement over precisely when the deadline is for world powers to reach a political framework agreement with Iran over its nuclear work.
Ten Democratic senators agreed to join their Republican colleagues in support of the legislation on the 24th, though diplomats in Lausanne, Switzerland, are working toward a March 31 deadline.
Senators consider March 24 to be the deadline because US Secretary of State John Kerry, on November 24, said a framework agreement should be reached within four months. Negotiators, instead, are counting three months backward from a hard expiration on the interim Joint Plan of Action, on June 30.
The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 – which would trigger new sanctions on Iran should negotiators fail to reach a deal – also will be revisited on March 24, the aide continued, unless a deal is reached.
The intention of that bill, triggering sanctions upon diplomatic failure, is to strengthen Washington’s negotiating position, according to its authors, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Mark Kirk (R-Illinois).
The Obama administration contends that its passage would have the opposite affect.
Obama has threatened to veto any Iran legislation that reaches his desk before negotiations end.
“After two negotiating extensions and over a year-and-a-half of talks, with a steady stream of reports detailing that the Iranians have won numerous concessions, I wouldn’t bet on congressional inaction,” the Senate aide continued. “Ultimately, the onus is not on US legislators, nor should the pressure fall on Congress, but rather, on the Iranian leadership to make the right determination about dismantling its illicit nuclear-weapons program.”
Corker’s bill has 64 senators on record in support of the legislation after March 24, but Corker says he is seeking a “veto-proof” majority of 67 votes.
On CNN’s Sunday show State of the Union, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said he is prepared to move forward despite the president’s request. Only McConnell has the ability to schedule debate and votes on the Senate floor.
“The president would like to keep us out of it,” McConnell said, referring to deliberations and agreement over a nuclear agreement. “The administration is on the cusp of making a very bad deal with one of the worst regimes in the world.”
McConnell said he has supported the negotiations up to this point.
“If the deal is made, we’ll bring up the Corker-Menendez proposal,” the majority leader continued, expressing confidence that votes would secure bipartisan support. “If the deal is not made, we think the Kirk-Menendez proposal is the appropriate next step.”
Negotiations continued on Sunday in Lausanne between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. In media interviews, Kerry has refrained from expressing optimism that a deal is at hand.
Obama says he will not accept an agreement that sets back his agenda against the proliferation of nuclear weapons or that allows Iran ultimately to acquire a nuclear arsenal.
Negotiators expect to break from talks for the Iranian holiday of Nowruz on March 20. Kerry also will return to Washington to host President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan at Camp David on March 22.
Talks then will resume in Switzerland, US officials say, until the end of the month.
“This is a big, important issue not to be trivialized,” McConnell added. “The Senate will be heard from.”