By Jim Lobe
Thursday’s release of a letter signed by 150 House Democrats makes it significantly more likely that a nuclear deal negotiated between the P5+1 and Iran will survive a congressional challenge.
The letter, an initiative of Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), and David Price (D-NC), expresses strong support for Obama’s efforts to conclude an agreement. It has been quietly circulating on Capitol Hill for several weeks and was made public only when 150 lawmakers signed it—several more than needed to sustain an Obama veto of legislation disapproving a deal with Iran. (As most readers of this blog know, overriding a presidential veto requires that at least two-thirds of the membership of each house of Congress vote to do so.)
The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent explained the letter’s implications on his Plum Line blog this morning, and there’s no need for me to repeat what he wrote when you can follow the link. But he made one very good point that deserves attention: “…[T]he goal of the letter isn’t just to signal that a veto would likely be sustained. It’s also meant to signal that there is more Congressional support than expected for the negotiations in order to help along the talks.” The letter is also likely to give Iranian negotiators more confidence that a final deal signed by the U.S. will not be overturned by Congress.
The letter is likely to get much less media attention than the Senate’s approval on Thursday of the Corker-Cardin bill without any substantial amendment. If also passed by the House and signed into law by Obama, the legislation will permit Congress to review and potentially block a final deal within 30 days of its submission by the administration. The final vote was 98-1. The lone dissenter was, predictably, Tom Cotton (R-AR), who is quickly establishing himself as the Republicans’ foreign-policy enfant terrible. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), one of the administration’s closest allies on Iran, did not vote.
The vote marked a major defeat for Cotton and his mentor Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor and Emergency Committee for Israel co-founder/director. Kristol described the bill as a “trap” designed to make it much more unlikely, if not impossible, for Congress to sabotage the deal, at least before January 2017 when Obama leaves office. On Wednesday, Max Boot seconded the assessment, arguing (even more apocalyptically) that even a Republican president is unlikely to pull the plug on the deal if it survives until Obama is gone. In a rare split among hard-line neoconservatives, as Ali noted earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board backed the final bill as the best alternative on offer.
As noted above, the Schakowsky letter makes it much more likely that an Iran deal, assuming one is reached, will indeed be very difficult for Congress to undo.
According to Jamal Abdi, the policy director at the National Iranian American Council, “If the President is forced to use his veto to protect an agreement this summer, there are now sufficient lawmakers on the record in support of the envisioned deal to potentially uphold that veto.”
Protecting a deal by veto is not the ideal option because it could convince some in Congress to persist with further efforts to sabotage a deal. But if it’s necessary to prevent Congress from killing a deal and leading us down the warpath, the President will have to use his veto, and many lawmakers will have his back.
J Street, which played an important role with NIAC and a number of other organizations in gaining the signatures, also expressed satisfaction. It characterized the letter as a “decisive rebuke to the opponents of diplomacy who are dangerous trying to kill negotiations and put the United States, our allies, and the region on the path to another war.”
Similarly, the Friends Committee on National Legislation—one of Capitol Hill’s most consistently effective lobby groups—praised the letter as a watershed. According to its Legislative Associate for Middle East policy Kate Gould:
This is the strongest signal Congress has ever sent in support of a negotiated settlement with Iran. Clearly, the flood of pro-diplomacy calls, messages and letters to the editor are having an impact on the Iran debate in Washington. Support for diplomacy is on the ascendance on Capitol Hill.
Photo: Rep. Jan Schakowsky by David Charns via Flickr