If President Obama had his way, Congress would simply keep its pesky nose out of the Iran nuclear deal. Given his critics’ behavior, it’s easy to understand such presidential bristling. Still, the better course — and, more to the point, the unavoidable course, given Republican majorities in both houses — would be for the Obama administration to switch from bristling to deal-making.
It should work with Congress to find a mechanism that lets lawmakers weigh in on the Iran agreement — an agreement, after all, that involves undoing sanctions imposed by Congress itself. Indeed, congressional involvement could end up strengthening the administration’s hand as it hammers out the final contours of the deal, not weakening this and future presidents.
I write this as someone cautiously supportive of the nuclear deal. I write, too, recognizing that some congressional claims asserting legislative prerogatives are not-so-thinly veiled efforts to undermine both the Iran deal and the president who crafted it.
With 47 Senate Republicans having written to Iranian leaders, in the midst of negotiations, warning that the president was just one, soon-to-be-off-the-stage player, Obama’s resistance to sharing power with such folks comes as no surprise. Likewise, congressional protestations about its reviewing authority are awfully hard to square with congressional inaction on updating the authorization for the use of military force.
And yet, including Congress is both unavoidable and the wiser path. To understand this inevitable reality, consider a few things:
First, not only the 54-member Republican majority in the Senate, but the fact that nine Democrats — including Democratic leader-in-waiting Chuck Schumer of New York — have co-sponsored a measure by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee that would establish a framework for congressional involvement.
So do the math: 54 plus 9 edges dangerously close to a veto-proof majority; and where Schumer treads, wavering Democrats are apt to follow. In the House, a two-thirds majority might be harder to assemble, but the Corker measure remains a fact of life that the administration can’t ignore.
Second, the Corker bill, while still containing some provisions obnoxious to the White House, is dramatically improved from its original version and amenable to further tinkering when it comes before the Foreign Relations panel next week.
Under the first version, the deal would be automatically blocked if Congress disapproved it. The new language, negotiated by Tim Kaine of Virginia, would let the deal take effect after 60 days either with a “yes” vote from Congress or if Congress failed to act within that time frame.
Under the first version, the disapproval resolution would have been on the entire deal, including executive and international sanctions. The new language limits congressional involvement to the sanctions imposed by Congress. The president has power, under the existing sanctions law, to waive those on his own. But even the administration recognizes that perpetual executive waiver is unsustainable; ultimately, Congress will need to act.
As to improvements: One provision offensive to the administration would require it to periodically certify that Iran “has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or a United States person anywhere in the world.” This introduces an extrinsic, and difficult to guarantee, element into the nuclear deal.
But I am told it was inserted at the behest of New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, who stepped aside from his role as ranking member on Foreign Relations after his bribery indictment. With Menendez out of that role, the provision should be gone as well.
So the biggest remaining practical beef is that the Corker bill would block sanctions from being lifted during the 60-day period for congressional review. But since sanctions are going to be removed in phases in any event, this problem does not seem insurmountable.
In fact, given that the final agreement still needs to be negotiated, the prospect of congressional involvement, and disapproval, could give the administration added leverage with the Iranians.
Which leaves the biggest remaining precedential beef: that the Corker bill could set a debilitating example for presidential ability to forge international agreements. That’s a fair worry in general — and especially with a Congress this obstreperously disrespectful.
But it does not apply in this case. “No president should be able to bargain a framework for repeal of a congressional statute without Congress weighing in,” Kaine told me in an interview. That just seems like constitutional common sense.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is email@example.com.