Congress' strategy for Iran is turning into a mess

AP12062608191AP/J. Scott ApplewhiteMajority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky)

The U.S. Senate abruptly changed course on Thursday on legislation aimed at giving Congress more influence over nuclear negotiations with Iran.

And the chamber’s leadership is scrambling to figure out what to do next.

The drama began earlier this week when even the Democrats who sponsored the legislation balked after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) moved to directly bring their bill up for a vote, instead of letting it first work its way through a committee. In a statement, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) decried McConnell’s “transparently political move.”

“Protecting Israel and the world from a nuclear-armed Iran is too important of an issue to use in partisan political games,” Reid said Thursday. “As leaders we should seek to build and cultivate bipartisan support for Israel, not try to score cheap political points. Democrats and Republicans joined together to ask Senator McConnell to reconsider his decision to rush this bill to the floor without the input of the senators who have worked so hard for months on this issue and he did the right thing by heeding their advice.”

The US and other powers are in the middle of negotiations with Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for rolling back economic sanctions. According to an October report in the New York Times, the White House is working to construct the agreement to avoid the section of the Constitution that grants the president the power to make treaties “provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”

Avoiding Congress means that the US and the other signatories would consider the Iran deal to be a series of quid pro quos, rather than a binding international agreement. This would remove any legal obligation for Iran and the US to actually follow the agreement. The agreement wouldn’t legally require Iran to scale back its nuclear activities — just as it wouldn’t obligate the US and its partners to reimpose sanctions if Iran were ever caught cheating.

At the same time, a Republican Congress is unlikely to pass the agreement in its current form if it were submitted for approval, and a legally binding treaty may be an unrealistic goal. And there’s precedent for the executive branch cutting Congress out of non-proliferation deals: the Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1994 was also structured as a nonbinding agreement and was not submitted to the Senate for ratification.

But the Senate’s bill is an attempt to shift the dynamic and prevent Obama from ignoring the legislative chamber’s role in the negotiating process with Iran. According to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), a lead sponsor of the bill, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 “mandates the president submit the text of any agreement [with Iran] to Congress and prohibits the administration from suspending congressional sanctions for 60 days.”

A senior Republican aide told Business Insider on Friday that it is unfortunate President Barack Obama isn’t working with the Senate to establish a permanent treaty with Iran.

“If the Obama administration wanted an agreement that would outlast his presidency, they would try to get a treaty under the Constitution,” the aide said. “But because they’re shooting for an executive agreement that will not be legally binding in any way, this whole exercise strikes many in the Senate as the president’s attempt to punt the problem to the next president.”

Democrats want to wait to vote on Corker’s legislation, also sponsored by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), until after the March 24 deadline for the Iranian nuclear negotiations. According to a Reid aide, a new date for the bill has not been set for a vote.

Additional reporting by Armin Rosen

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