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Congress Will Vote No on the Nuclear Deal — But What Will ‘No’ Mean?

As Secretary of State John Kerry roams the halls of Capitol Hill on Wednesday to sell the Iran deal to skeptical lawmakers, one future outcome is clear: In the next 60 days, Congress is virtually certain to voice its displeasure with the agreement in a high-profile vote.

US President Barack Obama (C) speaks alongside Speaker of the House John Boehner (L), Republican of Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), Republican of Kentucky, prior to a meeting of the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC, January 13, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (C) speaks alongside Speaker of the House John Boehner (L), Republican of Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), Republican of Kentucky, prior to a meeting of the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC, January 13, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

As Secretary of State John Kerry roams the halls of Capitol Hill on Wednesday to sell the Iran deal to skeptical lawmakers, one future outcome is clear: In the next 60 days, Congress is virtually certain to voice its displeasure with the agreement in a high-profile vote.

What’s less certain is what lawmakers will be voting on to convey their dissatisfaction: a resolution of disapproval or a resolution of approval. The difference between the two carries significant political consequences for Democrats and Republicans, and the potential fate of the deal itself.

Under the terms of a U.S. law passed earlier this year, a resolution of disapproval would prevent the United States from lifting congressional sanctions against Tehran — and effectively unravel the nuclear accord struck in Vienna by the United States, Iran, and five world powers. By contrast, a vote on a resolution of approval would merely indicate the level of political support the deal enjoys in Congress without impacting the agreement.

Many Republicans favor holding a vote on a resolution of disapproval because, unlike an approval vote, the measure carries legal consequences. But party leaders are still weighing both options.

“No decisions have been made,” a top GOP leadership aide told Foreign Policy. “We just got the agreement on Sunday, so we are going to take our time to review, talk to experts, talk to our constituents, and return in September to take a vote.”

Many expect the Republican leadership to move forward with a disapproval vote, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. President Barack Obama has vowed to veto such a resolution, which would require Republicans to build a two-thirds supermajority across Congress for an override — a feat that may be insurmountable for GOP lawmakers.

“They can count votes,” said a second congressional aide familiar with the issue. “They don’t want to be embarrassed by losing the veto override.”

At the same time, many Republicans would relish watching Democrats agonize over a vote that forced them to pick between their president and pro-Israel constituents, even if it ended up being a losing battle.

Democrats are currently under an immense amount of pressure from the White House, special interest groups, and deep-pocketed donors who are pushing them in different directions.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States, spent a record $1.67 million during the first half of 2015 lobbying Congress on the Iran deal. The group is also pumping money into a new 501(c)(4) group called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. That group is expected to drop $20 million on advertising and messaging campaigns in as many as 40 states to oppose the deal.

If most Democrats had it their way, they would prefer to vote on a resolution of approval but for different reasons.

Liberals who believe the deal cuts off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb and defuses another potential conflict in the Middle East want to vote “yes” to express support for the diplomatic effort.

But other Democrats, torn between their allegiance to the president and their allegiance to pro-Israel constituents, prefer a symbolic resolution of approval. Under this scenario, hawkish Democrats would join Republicans in voting down the resolution, which would keep them in the good graces of the pro-Israel crowd without jeopardizing the president’s nuclear accord.

When asked about his preference for a type of vote, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told FP he had “yet to reach a decision [on] what, if any, action Congress should take.”

Although some Republican lawmakers may prefer having votes on both resolutions, the legislative calendar won’t likely allow for it. Due to the August recess, lawmakers are expected to only have time for one Iran vote before the Sept. 17 deadline. “If someone’s going to drag out cloture, we’re only going to have time to process one vote,” said a Senate aide.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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