The Cable

Behold the Enormous Collateral Damage From the Senate’s Iran Bill

The Senate got an Iran nuclear review bill. But it came at a steep cost.


The Senate has overwhelmingly passed legislation that would give Congress a say on any nuclear deal between world powers and Iran. It’s come at a high price, however, and the collateral damage left by the months-long struggle to get the bill into law is enormous.

Israel’s vocal opposition to the deal has pushed ties with the United States to historic lows. It’s opened rifts within the Republican Party, causing infighting between GOP members who wanted — and got — a relatively clean bill and those who wanted to insert language toughening its terms at the risk of blowing up the entire deal. Most of the Republicans who wanted to include so-called poison pill amendments eventually relented and voted “yes,” with the exception of Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The final vote was 98 to one; Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) was absent from the chamber.

The White House had long threatened to veto any legislation aimed at giving lawmakers a say on the long-negotiated Iran deal. But in a victory for Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), a centrist on foreign policy, the Senate bill attracted more than enough Democrat support to override a veto. President Barack Obama removed that threat when the legislation made it out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month and said he could live with the clean version of Corker’s bill.

If it becomes law, the legislation gives Congress 30 days to review a deal submitted by the June 30 deadline to reach a final accord. If a deal is submitted after July 9, the review period increases to 60 days. Congress has threatened new economic sanctions against Tehran if it doesn’t live up to the terms of the preliminary deal reached in April.

Getting bipartisan consensus in the Senate appeared to be a bridge-too-far back in February, when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lobby Congress against the deal without consulting the White House first. Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress in March, opening a divide between Republicans and leading Democrats such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who said the speech was an insult to Obama, as well as widening the schism between Jerusalem and Washington.

That speech, in which the Israeli prime minister warned the agreement under consideration would ease Iran’s path toward a nuclear bomb, drew a sharp rebuke from the White House. Obama administration officials accused Boehner of breaking diplomatic protocol by not consulting with the administration in advance. Obama dismissed the talk as containing “nothing new” that did not offer viable alternatives to diplomacy.

Cooperation also seemed unlikely after Sen. Cotton penned a letter addressed to Iranian politicians, signed by 47 GOP lawmakers, warning any deal made with Tehran wouldn’t survive past Obama’s presidency. Obama accused Republicans of conspiring with Iran’s hard-liners who oppose the deal.

“It’s an unusual coalition,” Obama said at the time.

In recent days, it appeared as if partisan infighting could derail a final push for the law. Some Republicans wanted to attach amendments to the bill — Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tried to include a measure demanding Iran formally recognize Israel as a condition of the nuclear accord — that would cause some lawmakers to withdraw support. The legislation also overcame procedural moves by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) on Wednesday meant to stall the bill.

Finally, the legislation managed to shake off the indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), one of its cosponsors. The New Jersey lawmaker was charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery, and three counts of honest services fraud. He is promising a vigorous defense.

In the end, the lone “no” vote was Cotton, who infamously Tweeted a Farsi translation of his letter, riddled with errors, at Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

The bill now heads to the House, where it is also likely to pass.

“Senator Corker’s legislation rightly positions Congress to judge and render a verdict on any final nuclear agreement the administration strikes with Tehran. It also should strengthen the administration’s hand at the negotiating table,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said after the Senate vote.

The legislation’s passage afforded senators a rare moment of unity Thursday afternoon.

“This is a bipartisan bill based on an important principle: that the American people, through the Congress they elect, deserve a say on one of the most important issues of our time,” said Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who recently announced a 2016 presidential bid, added that the law provides a “meaningful role for Congress without undermining diplomacy.”

Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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