Two roads diverge in the path to history for Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, as he charts his and the Senate’s course on the anticipated nuclear agreement with Iran. Each road was traveled by a legendary Republican chairman of that committee, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan.
Each man held strong beliefs on foreign policy but very divergent views on which path to follow.
Lodge confided in his friend Teddy Roosevelt his “hatred” for president Woodrow Wilson, and led a bitter campaign against ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and blocked the United States from joining the League of Nations. Wilson rejected his demands that the Congress, not the president, should control whether to send American troops into combat.
Vandenberg was an outspoken opponent of FDR’s New Deal and an isolationist who ultimately became an architect of a bipartisan foreign policy. He famously declared “politics stops at the water’s edge” and in the Cold War years he cooperated with the Truman administration and supported establishment of the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO and the United Nations.
Corker could be a Vandenberg or a Lodge.
And Israel and the Jewish community have an enormous stake in which route the chairman will follow.
He faces enormous pressure from rabid Obama-haters in his party who seemingly care more about handing this president a stinging defeat on a key foreign policy priority than about blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
But he may also face strong pressure from his party’s remaining pragmatists who worry about blocking a peaceful settlement with Iran that most voters seem to want.
An opinion poll for The Huffington Post last week showed a large majority of American voters favor the deal with Iran outlined in the framework announced at Lausanne, Switzerland, despite doubts about Iranian reliability, and they don’t want the Congress to block it.
To avoid a constitutional clash and veto fight, Corker and ranking Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin (Maryland) worked out a compromise that, if it holds through the full Senate and the House, the president has indicated he will sign.
The Corker-Cardin version gives Congress the right to review the Iran agreement and have an opportunity to vote on it.
The compromise could fall apart if Republicans start adding some threatened poison pill amendments to the bill, as they have done in many recent legislative fights. That could prompt a presidential veto and drive away enough Democrats to sustain it.
Obama knows that if he submits the agreement to the Congress there will be automatic majorities – nearly every Republican – ready to vote “no” regardless of merit.
But blocking an agreement is not without considerable risk. Americans may distrust Iran, but the last thing a majority wants is another long, costly and possibly inconclusive war. If the Obama haters succeed, the GOP could find itself blamed for yet another huge foreign policy disaster.
Instead of Corker’s original proposal to give Congress an up-or-down vote on the agreement, the compromise provides for a future vote on lifting congressionally imposed sanctions, something the White House has always acknowledged would be needed.
Howard Diamond, a longtime House foreign policy staffer, suggested an additional measure to enhance Congressional oversight.
“Congress can establish mechanisms for expedited consideration of new sanctions if the president reports (as they will naturally require him to do) Iranian failure to comply with the terms of the deal. That is as close to a loaded pistol as Congress can come. If you want to send a message that cheating will be instantly punished, there’s no better way,” he told me.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his ambassador and AIPA C are vigorously lobbying the Congress to pass the Corker bill and to enact tough new sanctions on Iran as well.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), the newest announced GOP presidential candidate, is pushing an amendment demanded by Netanyahu to require Iran to recognize Israel. It’s a poison pill intended to scuttle the negotiations while forcing Democrats, especially Jews, to choose between supporting the Israeli leader or Obama, who opposes the measure.
In any event it will be a centerpiece of Republican fundraising among conservative Jews.
Interestingly, in talking points AIPA C sent to its members to lobby lawmakers to support the Corker bill, there was no mention of the Rubio amendment.
Rather than undermine ongoing diplomacy, as the White House charges, a strong expression of Congressional concern like the Corker-Cardin compromise, if it remains intact, can strengthen the administration’s hand at the bargaining table.
Corker faces a daunting challenge in keeping his party’s extremists – especially those running for president – from piling on extra baggage that draws attention to their campaigns but will also revive the veto threat and spark a bitter floor fight.
Which gets me back to Henry Cabot Lodge.
How much of the Republican demand for control over process and an announced intention to block any agreement can be attributed to animosity toward this Democratic president? And how much is really just about GOP pandering to pro-Israel campaign contributors, not statesmanship? Does anyone really doubt that after 47 Republican senators wrote a letter to the supreme leader of Iran in an attempt to undermine the authority of the president of the United States they would give any agreement reached this summer by Barack Obama a fair and honest hearing? It is no secret that Republicans want to hand Obama an embarrassing foreign policy defeat, and the Iran deal is their weapon of choice.
It matters little that public opinion strongly favors the deal and wants the Congress to approve it. Will politics trump the national interest on this one? Corker must decide whose footsteps he wants to follow, the bitterly partisan Lodge or Vandenberg, the architect of bipartisan foreign policy that shaped American leadership in the Cold War.