Democratic senators backing a bill that would give Congress authority to review an Iran nuclear deal are caught between the White House and the pro-Israel lobby as they assert their prerogative to vet foreign policy.
The Republican bill, co-sponsored by New York Senator Charles Schumer and eight other Democrats, would allow Congress to block the U.S. from lifting sanctions against Iran. President Barack Obama’s administration says the measure could imperil the nuclear talks and that he would veto it.
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Another influential force, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is urging senators to support the legislation. The emerging deal wouldn’t prevent a nuclear Iran, and the measure would preserve Congress’s role in foreign policy, the group says.
“Democrats want to be loyal to the president, but on the other hand, they have to be loyal to their constituents — and many of them have constituents who are deeply skeptical of an Iran deal,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.
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The U.S. and five other world powers on April 2 announced the framework of an agreement with Iran intended to curb that country’s ability to enrich uranium in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. They are working toward a final agreement by the end of June.
Israel says the plan threatens its existence, and a number of Republicans in Congress oppose the framework.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to consider the bill, S. 615, on April 14. Obama telephoned committee Chairman Bob Corker, the bill’s lead sponsor, on Wednesday to discuss the measure. Corker’s bill currently has enough backers to pass the measure though not the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto.
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Democrats’ decision will involve two steps: whether to give Congress the power to review an Iran deal and, if that measure becomes law, whether to block the U.S. from granting sanctions relief to Iran.
Some Democrats may back Corker’s measure to assert Congress’s role in such foreign policy matters, and then vote to let Obama lift sanctions if they are convinced the administration has reached an adequate deal.
Pitney said one advantage Democrats might gain in supporting Corker’s bill would be to set a precedent for congressional review if a Republican becomes president in 2017.
“I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement,” Schumer said in an e-mailed statement this week.
Minority Leader Harry Reid has endorsed Schumer to take his leadership position in two years when Reid retires from the Senate. New York has a higher percentage of Jewish residents than any other state.
The debate over Corker’s bill “is shaping up as kind of a litmus test where they are being pushed into a corner and having to choose between being pro their Democratic president or pro-Israel,” Martin Indyk, executive vice president of the Brookings Institution, said in an interview Friday with Bloomberg Television.
The other Senate Democrats supporting Corker’s bill are Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Bill Nelson of Florida. Maine’s Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, also is co-sponsoring the bill.
Four other Democratic senators back a separate plan by Illinois Republican Mark Kirk to impose additional sanctions on Iran, though they aren’t co-sponsoring Corker’s bill.
Those Democrats — Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Gary Peters of Michigan — may be likely targets to back Corker’s measure.
Another influential Democrat will be Ben Cardin, who became the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel when Menendez temporarily stepped down last week after being indicted on federal corruption charges.
Cardin said in an April 2 statement that a final deal “must be verifiable and transparent, making it clear that any violations would result in an immediate restoration of the strongest possible sanctions.”
“Congress has a role to play in this process,” Cardin said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a March 6 speech to Congress and in subsequent remarks, has been a sharp critic of the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Connecticut, Florida and New Jersey are among the U.S. states with the highest percentage of Jewish residents, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. Indiana, North Dakota and Virginia all have pockets of evangelical Christians, another constituency that is a strong supporter of Israel.
A March 1-5 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 71 percent of Americans don’t believe a nuclear deal with Iran would “make a real difference” in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
AIPAC spent $3.1 million last year on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington nonprofit that tracks lobbying and campaign spending. AIPAC, which also indirectly helps provide money to federal candidates, is among the nation’s most prominent lobbying groups.
“We strongly support the Corker-Menendez legislation and we are working to build broad bipartisan support,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann said in an e-mailed statement. He declined to say which senators the group is contacting.
Schumer is among the senators the Obama administration is courting. He’s been briefed multiple times by administration officials on the framework agreement and the status of the talks, according to a person familiar with the conversations.
Senate Democrats’ willingness to cross party lines on the issue complicates Obama’s effort to sell the agreement. In an interview broadcast Tuesday on NPR, the president defended his administration’s authority to negotiate the plan without the approval of Congress.
“There is long precedent for a whole host of international agreements in which there’s not a formal treaty ratified by Congress,” the president said.
Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, one of the leading U.S. negotiators in the Iran talks, has talked by phone with Schumer, Jeff Rathke, a State Department spokesman, told reporters Friday in Washington.
Rathke said Sherman also met with Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who led 46 other Senate Republicans in writing a March 9 open letter to Iran’s leaders warning that a future U.S. Congress could reverse any nuclear deal. The move drew sharp rebukes from Democrats and the White House.
“Next week we’ll have the ability to brief Congress on the framework; we’ll have the ability to explain why certain actions during” the negotiating period “would be counterproductive,” White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters Friday.
In the House, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio hasn’t publicly commented on the bill, and his office didn’t do so when asked Thursday. Aides to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce didn’t respond to discuss the Corker measure’s prospects in their chamber.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a statement Wednesday that the bill “undermines these international negotiations and represents an unnecessary hurdle to achieving a strong, final agreement.”
The framework agreement is the result of talks between Iran, the U.S. and five other major world powers.
AIPAC said the framework plan “could result in a final agreement that will leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state and encourage a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”
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- Charles Schumer
- President Barack Obama
- White House
- sanctions against Iran
- Bob Corker
- Bob Menendez
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