Capitol Hill: Corker Iran Bill Stalls

Published on April 9, 2015

It now looks highly likely that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker will fall short of a 67 veto-proof majority on the current draft of his “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015,” which is slated for a mark-up next Tuesday.

*** The indications are that the Senate support for the bill – as currently written – is stalled at no more than 63 votes, with all 54 Republicans but only nine Democrats now in favor. Despite one of those supporters being New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Minority Leader heir-apparent, Senate Democrats are rallying around the White House to either seek substantial amendments to the bill or to provide enough nays in a Senate floor vote to keep the bill from winning a veto-proof majority. ***

*** The informal whip count means that the bill is unlikely to become law before June, which could have slowed the momentum towards a final agreement between Iran and the “P5+1” group comprising the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China, to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities. If the final terms are agreed to by the self-imposed June deadline, the economic and financial sanctions against Iran would be lifted in due course, freeing up Iranian oil to enter into an already glutted crude oil market (see SGH 3/31/15, “Iran: A ‘Framework’ that Matters to Oil”). ***

*** Despite the probable setback to the Corker bill, partisan political passions are only likely to deepen on the back of the nuclear deal with Iran, and the demands for a Senate say on the Iran deal and the outright efforts to derail the Iran agreement may threaten to disrupt the Hill’s return to “regular order” by spilling over into the FY 2016 appropriations process. Key spending bills could be held up with possible de-funding riders or future amendments imposing new sanctions on Iran that could lead to renewed political stand-offs and the risks of a government shutdown. ***

Amendments in Mark-up

As currently drafted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015” has three main components: it would require President Obama to submit any comprehensive agreement between Iran and the “P5+1” group to a congressional review within five days; it would prohibit suspension of US Congressional sanctions on Iran for 60 days to allow for the review, and; the bill would allow for Congressional oversight of Iranian compliance.

It also contains what the White House asserts is essentially a “poison pill” clause requiring the Obama Administration to certify that Iran no longer supports terrorism.
Committee Chairman Corker has indicated he would be open to making changes to the legislative language to win over four more Democrats if amendments are offered to the bill during the scheduled mark-up beginning next Tuesday. Several Democratic members of the Foreign Relations Committee have already indicated they will indeed introduce amendments.

One of the likely amendments on Tuesday if Chairman Corker proceeds with the bill mark-up as planned, will be to delete the terrorism language, which Corker is likely to consider. Another amendment is likely to seek adjustments in the sanctions language so the President could remove the US-imposed sanctions against Iran before Congress completes its review and approval of the deal, and another will propose a substantially shortened 60 day review period.

All those amendments are likely to face fierce objections from the Republican majority on the Committee, but without them, there will be Democratic Senator defectors, and it now looks highly unlikely Corker will be able to obtain a veto proof majority, which means the White House will simply veto the bill if it comes to the President’s desk.

Stalled Momentum

The intense political backlash building on the Hill over the “understanding” reached between the Iranian and P5+1 negotiators in Lausanne last week was rapidly coalescing around the bill proposed by Corker, who has carefully tread a middle course in seeking to build bi-partisan political support by arguing the Senate should have a say on the final terms of any agreement with Iran on its nuclear capabilities.

The agreement with Iran, if it is concluded in June, does not require Senate ratification because it is not a Treaty between the US and Iran. The US, for one, has no legal or diplomatic relations with Iran. Instead, the White House is committing to the final terms of any deal with Iran under an “Executive Agreement” as the vehicle to remove the Administration and congressional sanctions on Iran.

In effect, the White House opted to circumvent the Senate altogether, which the Corker bill seeks to counter by requiring in law that Congress be empowered to review and vote on the final terms of the deal and whether to remove the Congressional portion of the Iran sanctions. It bears noting here that many of the sanctions imposed over the years on Iran have in fact been through Executive Order.

Corker by last week had garnered enough Senate Democratic support to suggest that when the bill came to a Senate floor vote — Senate Majority Leader McConnell has promised a floor vote within weeks at most once the Corker bill cleared the Foreign Relations Committee — it would have a two-third majority to ensure the Senate could override a threatened presidential veto.

The Corker bill picked up further political momentum earlier this week when New York Senator Schumer, who is the front runner to succeed Nevada’s Harry Reid as the Democratic Minority Leader, affirmed he is still supporting the Corker bill.

But the White House, alarmed that the bill as written would undermine the last round of the delicate negotiations with Iran to nail down the final terms of an agreement by a June deadline, has been aggressively working the Hill, lobbying for either significant changes to the Corker bill, or to turn votes against it and keep Corker short of a veto-proof majority.

If the Corker bill passes in the Senate by fewer than 67 votes, it cannot override a certain veto as it needs two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the House. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asserts the House Democrats can keep the House vote short of the 288 two-third majority that would be needed.

Spillover Risk into the FY2016 Budget

The Congressional and intense political backlash against a deal with Iran allowing for an eventual nuclear weapon will hardly dissipate if the Corker bill is vetoed. Instead, the failure of the more moderate Corker bill may mean the anger over the agreement becomes that much harder to control. That would especially become the case if public support for a diplomatic resolution sours on the belief, as the deal’s critics argue, the Administration is empowering a terrorist state to acquire nuclear weapons.

One risk that is that the efforts to derail the Iran agreement may spill over into the FY 2016 appropriations process. There is some concern, for instance, that despite the efforts of the GOP Senate and House leadership to return the budget process to “regular order” this year, some of the key spending bills could be threatened with de-funding riders or amendments imposing new sanctions on Iran.

That, in turn, could greatly complicate the budget process and threaten yet another high stakes battle over a government shutdown, or threaten passage of other “must-pass” legislation like an increase in the federal debt ceiling.

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