Forget Bibi’s speech. Senate Republicans defied the White House on Iran by moving forward with a bill that goes farther than Bibi ever could.
For all the angst around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, the real showdown on Iran is coming next week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced he will open floor debate on a bill that would give Congress a chance to review any U.S. deal with Iran -- defying White House veto threats not to pursue the legislation because it would undermine the fragile talks.
The bill would require President Obama to submit any agreement with Iran to Congress, and would bar the Obama administration from lifting sanctions for two months in order to give lawmakers the chance to debate the deal. The “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015” is a newer version of earlier legislation from Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced on Friday with Bob Menendez, D-N.J. and Tim Kaine, D-Va.
“We think the timing is important. We think it will help prevent the administration from entering into a bad deal, but if they do then it will provide an opportunity for Congress to weigh in,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday shortly after Netanyahu’s speech in Congress and President Barack Obama’s quick retort that it was “nothing new.”
McConnell’s office told Defense One Tuesday it is too early to get a sense whether they could override a veto.
Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and primary author of the proposal, said, “Since Congress ultimately is gonna have to permanently suspend any sanctions that take place, it allows us to vote on that at the front end.” Corker said that he doesn’t buy the administration’s argument it could threaten the international negotiations with Iran.
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“I think everyone in America should want the House and the Senate to weigh in on this most important agreement that may be reached,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said lawmakers should show patience. “Why don’t we wait until we see what happens, there’s just three weeks left,” he told reporters. “As we learned, and I hope [McConnell] learned, saying you're going to be debating something doesn't necessarily mean it's going to happen.”
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told The Hill, "If this bill is sent to the president, he will veto it. We are in the final weeks of an international negotiation. We should give our negotiators the best chance of success, rather than complicating their efforts."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, invited Netanyahu to address Congress on Tuesday, where the prime minister railed against the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate with Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions. Critics accused Netanyahu and Republicans of breaching protocol and staging a political stunt to undermine Obama and bolster Netanyahu’s image before Israeli national elections on March 17.
“I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political,” Netanyahu said, beginning his address.
The deal, he continued, “doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb; it paves Iran's path to the bomb.”
Obama, from the Oval Office, immediately criticized Netanyahu’s remarks for providing no alternative solutions to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. “The alternative that the prime minister offers is no deal, in which case Iran will immediately begin once again pursuing its nuclear program,” Obama said, warning Congress: “I’m not focused on the politics of it, I'm not focused on the theater of it. And my strong suggestion would be that members of Congress, as they evaluate it, stay similarly focused.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said of Netanyahu's address that she was “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations, and saddened by the condescension.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, however, went so far as to say that the expected deal with Iran could lead to another Holocaust. “The Obama-Iranian nuclear deal is reminiscent of Munich in 1938,” he told Defense One. “The speech today by Prime Minister Netanyahu was Churchillian in its clarity and in its resolve to respond to the greatest national security threat on the face of the planet.”
Still, the Republican bill may not sail through. McConnell has several procedural hurdles to clear, the first of which will require 60 votes. Simultaneously, Corker intends to pursue it in committee, starting with a markup next Tuesday.
Menendez, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the most outspoken Iran hawks in Congress, said on the floor Tuesday evening he was “outraged” at McConnell’s move.
“Now, putting any bipartisanship aside, we are back to politics as usual,” he said. “I will have no choice but to use my voice and my vote against any motion to proceed.”
Kaine called the majority leader's decision premature, saying, “We need to demonstrate that our review will be thoughtful and deliberate rather than rushed and partisan.”