Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., left, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty)
Just hours after the White House withdrew its opposition to a bill requiring congressional oversight on any nuclear deal with Iran, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved the legislation, called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, prompting a victory lap by the bill’s author, committee chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
“This legislation is exactly the congressional review that we’ve been working on since day one,” Corker said in his opening remarks to the notably uncontentious hearing. His tone mixed delighted disbelief with a not-too-subtle thumb in the eye of the administration, which had reversed its long-standing position against any encroachment on the president’s foreign-policy prerogatives.
“I know they’ve relented because of what they believe the outcome is going to be here,” Corker said. “I think that the reason the White House has taken this position over the past two hours is that they see how many senators are supporting this.”
The numbers backed him up: When the less-than-two-hour-long hearing concluded, all 19 members of the panel, including all nine Democrats and two GOP presidential contenders (Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida), voted “yes” on the bill.
The anticlimactic vote culminated a whirlwind day on Capitol Hill, punctuated by an announcement of a bipartisan agreement to move forward with the legislation; a briefing to senators by Secretary of State John Kerry and other top administration officials on the ongoing Iran nuclear talks; and the White House announcement, which surprised even Corker, that the president was backing down from his threat to veto the bill.
“The president would be willing to sign the proposed compromise that is working its way through the committee today,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at his daily briefing on Tuesday.
Hours earlier, Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew had briefed senators on the ongoing multilateral nuclear negotiations. They reiterated the administration’s opposition to Congress moving forward on the Corker legislation before the P5+1 negotiators reached a potential agreement in June, according to members leaving that meeting, including Corker himself.
Around the same time as the briefing, Senate Foreign Relations Committee sources began leaking the contours of a deal between Corker and Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland to amend the underlying legislation, which ultimately won unanimous Democratic support. Cardin became the top Democrat on the committee earlier this month when embattled New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, who had been the top negotiator on the bill, was forced to step aside from his leadership of the panel because of unrelated corruption charges.
Sen. Bob Corker makes opening remarks at committee meeting. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty)
According to background guidance distributed by the committee, the negotiated final package requires the president to submit the final Iranian nuclear agreement to Congress, which would then have 52 days to review it. During that time, the president would not be allowed to waive existing congressional sanctions on Iran.
Those mandated 52 days are divided into phases, with an initial congressional review period of 30 days, an additional 12-day period added if Congress passes a bill and sends it to the president, and an additional 10 days if the president vetoes it. In typical congressional fashion, the language that the committee approved today includes a fallback provision to accommodate lawmakers’ regularly planned August recess. Per the committee, “If the deal is submitted late, after July 9, the review period goes up to 82 days.”
Additionally, the bill requires the president to certify to Congress that Iran is “complying with the terms of the final agreement” every 90 days, as well as submit a “series of detailed reports” on Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorism internationally.
“With this information, Congress will be able to determine the appropriate response in the event of Iran sponsoring an act of terrorism against Americans,” according to the background guidance provided by a committee aide.
By the time of the Senate’s weekly party lunches in the afternoon, when Democrats and Republicans discuss top issues of the day among their own members, it became clear that the Corker-Cardin agreement had enough momentum to pass — overwhelmingly.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a top White House ally, expressed his willingness to support the bill. The No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, outlined the leadership position with reporters after the Democrats’ meeting and just moments before the Foreign Relations hearing was set to begin.
Sens. Bob Corker, center, and Ben Cardin, right, after approval of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
“It is coincidental that at the same time [as the administration briefing], negotiations were underway between Senator Corker and Senator Cardin. … We were pleased to learn today at lunch that they have reached a tentative agreement,” Durbin said. “We are hopeful that it achieves the following: Make sure that [Congress] doesn’t interfere with the negotiation process, that Congress retains its right to make a decision up or down if it wishes on any negotiation agreement that comes forward, and that it’s done in a timely basis.”
Democrats both on the committee and within the rank and file cautioned that extraneous amendments to the bill when it comes up for a full Senate vote could break the fragile, bipartisan support for the agreement. But Tuesday’s proceedings were a huge victory for Corker, who late last month told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview that he was not sure that he could get enough votes in the full Senate — 67 — to override a presidential veto.
Now, it appears that he will get those votes but might not need them.
In a brief interview with Yahoo News on his way to the hearing, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who also serves as the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, was blunt about the White House’s change of heart.
“There’s a medical term called ‘mural dyslexia,’ which is the inability to read the handwriting on the wall, and perhaps the president is now reading the handwriting on the wall, which says, in a bipartisan way, the American people want to have a say,” Barrasso said. “They want their voices to be heard through their elected representatives. And that’s why I think we have so many Republicans and Democrats who support a review and then a vote before these congressional sanctions are removed.”