Two months from today, the six-month period set forth in the interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 will expire if a final deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not reached. Critics of the Obama administration have been sounding the alarm that a bad deal is in the offing because a good deal — one that permanently disables and dismantles Iran’s illegal weapons program — is unimaginable given Iran’s recent behavior and rhetoric.
Senate Republicans led by Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tried this week to attach an amendment to a bill on strategic cooperation with Israel to at least assure that a final Iran deal, if by some miracle one is reached, would be submitted to Congress within three days and provide Congress on an expedited basis 15 days to issue a resolution of disapproval. This was too much for the Democrats, or at least for the White House. (The way these things work is that the White House pressures Majority Leader Harry Reid, who pressures Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez.) Rather than take a vote on the Corker amendment, the Democrats pulled the bill, suggesting once again that Senate Democrats at least before July 20 will not do anything to stiffen the White House’s spine. (Previously the White House, through Reid, blocked a vote on conditional sanctions that enjoyed support from more than 70 members.)
Senate Democrats argue that the Iran amendment is unrelated to the carefully negotiated Israel bill. But of course, Republicans reply, the Iran amendment is an add-on. That’s because that is the only way, even on a symbolic basis, to weigh in before the July 20 deadline. Menendez has made clear that he thinks any Iran deal must come back to the Senate, but there is no legal requirement, no guarantee the administration would do so. And thanks to Reid and the White House, there is no sanctions legislation that would kick in if Iran continues to stall or violates the current deal.
Senate aides tell me that after July 20, there may be only two weeks with both houses in session before the August recess and then a single week afterward before the November election. Both from a strategic standpoint (Menendez has already said that sanctions passed after July 20 would be unable to fend off a nuclear-ready Iran) and from the perspective of the legislative calendar, it is likely to be too late to do much of anything after the July 20 deadline passes.
Now all of this may be a legislative footnote. The fear of a bad deal may be misplaced; far more likely is no deal and continued negotiations by Iran and the West, both of which are desperate to continue the pretext that a diplomatic solution is in the works. (The interim deal contains an optional six-month extension.) Iran’s not-at-all-a-reformer President Hassan Rouhani has publicly said he won’t be dismantling any centrifuges. Even the Obama administration would find it hard to complete a deal in which Iran gets to keep its illicit centrifuges, its already enriched uranium, its missile program and its Arak reactor. As is, Iran is not cooperating with current obligations to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency; the idea that it would do so after sanctions are lifted is absurd.
What if President Obama decides to keep on negotiating, pleading that “concrete process” and “partial agreement” shouldn’t be disrupted by sanctions legislation (see the pattern here?)? Senate Democrats at that point, going into an election, would have taken zero action to address the Iran issue and thereby be rightly called out as enabling Iran and Obama to stall. Republicans and even a few Democrats would hammer leadership to at least allow some sort of vote. Given the Reid track record, however, it is overwhelmingly likely that no vote would be allowed in the Senate before the election.
Ah, but there’s the rub. Just like immigration reform, if there is no legislation on Iran before the November election and the GOP takes the Senate, the Democrats will have lost control and would face the prospect of GOP-passed legislation from the House and Senate landing on the president’s desk. Would Obama really veto a sanctions bill or a requirement for submission to Congress any final deal? The risk of humiliation in a vote to override a veto is large.
So really, what is Reid thinking he is accomplishing by his stunt of blocking all Senate action? He is making his Foreign Relations Committee chairman look weak and his members look impotent and is increasing the potential for a huge blowup between a GOP Senate (if Republicans win the majority) and the president. Then again, the man who spouts bizarre accusations against the Koch brothers from the Senate floor isn’t thinking these days about good policy or thinking more than a step or so ahead. He’s desperately trying to hang onto the majority.
But here’s the thing: Reid can’t do that and simultaneously carry water for the administration. In trying to do both, he makes Democrats’ peril more acute and the country and Israel less secure. Maybe the Senate Democrats should think about a mutiny around now. It might be the last chance to save their own skins.