by Lara Friedman
Editor’s note: As we have done recently, we are posting excerpts of the latest Legislative Round-Up of the week by Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now. Readers of this blog will be particularly interested in the analysis regarding Sen. Corker’s legislation on congressional oversight of any Iran deal. (Spoiler Alert: Lara believes the “Big Winners” include the White House and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee). You can find that in the second part of this week’s round-up, although it’s always interesting to see what new legislation members of Congress are coming up with regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is included in the first part of the Round-Up. Here it is:
Bills, Resolutions & Letters
(UPDATE ON CORKER IRAN DEAL VETO BILL) S. 615: On 4/14, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee marked up and passed S. 615, unanimously, as amended by the committee (amendment in the nature of a substitute is here). The bipartisan amended text was supported by the White House. With the amendments adopted in the SFRC and the White House assessment that the amended bill will not kill talks or threaten an agreement, APN no longer opposes passage of S. 615 (in its amended form). Corker press release on SFRC passage of bill (with summary of key provisions) is here. For details of the markup and analysis of the ongoing S. 615 saga, see Section 2, below.
(BAD PALESTINIANS! NO ICC FOR YOU!) H. Res. 209: Introduced 4/16 by Walorski (R-IN) and Veasey (D-TX), “Deploring the actions of the Palestinian Authority to join the International Criminal Court and undertake legal action through the Court against Israel.” Referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. While the Palestinians have not actually pursued any action yet at the ICC (and if they do, it is expected to focus on Israeli settlements), the resolution argues that Palestinian resort to the ICC constitutes “lawfare” designed “to put political pressure on Israel outside the context of direct negotiations, weaken Israel’s sovereignty, and hinder Israel’s ability to fight against and defeat terrorism.” The resolution then goes on to define such lawfare as “a threat to United States military activities abroad and those of the United States democratic allies” and to argue that “it is vital to take a stand against its use in order to protect the Nation’s best interests.”
(SUPPORT IRAN DIPLOMACY) Schakowsky et al letter: Reps. Schakowsky (D-IL), Doggett (D-TX), and Price (D-NC) are currently circulating for signatures a letter to President Obama supporting the current P5+1 effort to achieve a diplomatic agreement with Iran that will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The letter notes that “This issue is above politics. The stakes are too great, and the alternatives are too dire. We must exhaust every avenue toward a verifiable, enforceable, diplomatic solution in order to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. If the United States were to abandon negotiations or cause their collapse, not only would we fail to peacefully prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, we would make that outcome more likely.” It states that “We must allow our negotiating team the space and time necessary to build on the progress made in the political framework and turn it into a long-term, verifiable agreement. If we do not succeed, Congress will remain at-the-ready to act and present you with additional options to ensure that Iran is prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” APN strongly supports this letter and is urging Members to sign (our Action Alert is here).
(SUPPORT TWO-STATE SOLUTION) Nadler et al: On April 1, Rep. Nadler (D-NY) and 78 House colleagues sent a letter to President Obama expressing deep concern “over recent comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissing the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and appreciation for Obama’s “strong reiteration of US support for this long-standing policy.” The letter notes, “In the run-up to the Israeli election on March 17, Prime Minister Netanyahu, when interviewed by the press, appeared to drop his support of a two-state solution—claiming that no Palestinian state would be established while he is prime minister. This is particularly troubling given that support for a two-state solution has been part of U.S. policy over four administrations, including your own. Moreover, it is widely accepted as the only way of maintaining Israel’s long-term security and of ensuring that Israel remains both a Jewish and a democratic state. This is why we urge you to persevere in reaffirming that the two-state solution is still achievable and that it, and the joint U.S.-Israel commitment to shared democratic values and to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, remains fundamental to U.S. policy. We expect the U.S. and Israeli governments always to pursue a policy aimed at ensuring the maintenance of democratic values and the pursuit of peace.”
(STAND BY ISRAEL AT THE UN!) Cardin-Collins-Warner-Wicker letter: On 3/30, Senators Cardin (D-MD), Collins (R-ME), Warner (D-VA) and Wicker (R-MS) sent a letter to President Obama stating that “The United States has been a stalwart defender of Israel against discriminatory actions at the United Nations” and urging that the Obama Administration to make clear “our willingness to use our veto power to block” efforts at the UN “that are designed to circumvent direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.” Press release is here.
(MORE $$$ FOR ISRAELI MISSILE DEFENSE) Gillibrand-Kirk et al letter: On 3/27, Reps. Gillibrand (D-NY) and Kirk (R-IL), along with 30 Senate colleagues, sent a letter to the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee urging full funding for U.S.-Israel cooperative missile defense programs in the Fiscal Year 2016 Defense Appropriations bill (increased over previous year’s more than $620 million).
(NO RUSSIAN S-300s TO IRAN) Roskam-Deutch letter: On 4/14, Reps. Roskam (R-IL) and Deutch (D-FL) sent a letter to Secretary of State Kerry expressing concern over Russia’s decision to lift its ban on the transfer of advanced S-300 air defense systems to Iran. The letter states that this move “will significantly enhance Tehran’s military capabilities and threaten to further destabilize the region. This news is particularly concerning in light of ongoing nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and casts further doubts on Russia’s role as a constructive partner in this process.” The letter praises Kerry’s “swift action to raise objections to this potential weapons transfer” and asks that Kerry “remain vigilant in ensuring that Iran does not acquire these advanced missile defense systems.” Press release on the letter is here. Roskam and Deutch raised concerns about this same issue in the past, in January 2015 and September 2013.
(SUPPORT ISRAEL AT THE UN!) Roskam letter: On 3/30, Rep. Roskam (R-IL) sent a letter to President Obama to express “concern with recent reports that your Administration plans to ‘reevaluate’ its policy towards Israel, including potentially reducing support for our friend and democratic ally at the United Nations.” Roskam goes on to urge Obama to “continue to defend Israel at the U.N.” and to urge that “Now is the time to reaffirm, not ‘reevaluate,’ this critical partnership.” Roskam closes the letter, bizarrely, by telling the President of the United States to “feel free to contact Omri Rahmil,” one of Roskam’s staffers, “to discuss further.” Press release is here.
The Latest Chapter in the Remarkable Saga of Sen. Corker’s Iran Deal Oversight Bill (S. 615)
As he announced he would before the Spring recess, on 4/14 Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Corker (R-TN) held a markup of his (and former ranking member Menendez’s, D-NJ) Iran deal “oversight” bill, S. 615. In the days leading up to the 14th, it looked like this was going to be an epic showdown between the White House, which had made clear its opposition to the bill, and Senate Republicans – and a growing number of Democrats – who were determined to move ahead with the legislation. A list of amendments to be offered to the bill in committee by both Republicans and Democrats (not circulated publicly) was long and hinted at a pitched battle in committee. But then things took an interesting turn.
The Compromise: In an eleventh hour move that surprised almost everybody, Corker and new SFRC Ranking Member Cardin (D-MD) worked together to craft a “compromise” version of S. 615 that, it turned out, the White House decided to support. In addition to some changes in non-binding provisions, the compromise involved two key changes in the operative provisions of the bill:
- It removed a key poison pill provision (the provision linking U.S. implementation of an Iran nuclear deal to terrorism – an issue of critical importance but NOT part of nuclear negotiations and related to which there is an entirely separate sanctions regime).
- It tweaked the timeline for Congressional oversight. Under the original bill there was a mandatory 60+ day review period before any sanctions relief could be provided under a deal. Under the amended bill, that period could be as short as 30 days (if all relevant documentation is gotten to Congress before July 9 and Congress elects to do nothing or votes to approve a deal), extended to 52 days if Congress passes a resolution of disapproval of a deal and the President vetoes that resolution); it could also be as long as 82 days, with the mandatory review period automatically extending to 60 days if all documentation is not gotten to Congress by July 9, and with that period extending an additional 22 days if Congress disapproves a deal and the President vetoes the resolution of disapproval.
In short, the agreed-on changes are by no means simply cosmetic. However, except for the removal of one gratuitous provision that many believe was included from the beginning in order to be taken out, the operative clauses of the bill [were] left almost entirely intact, as drafted and introduced by Corker and Menendez. At the same time, these changes were sufficient – whether in terms of substance, or political optics, or both – for the Obama Administration to cease its opposition to the measure, paving the way for a (relatively) smooth markup and unanimous passage of the measure in Committee.
The Mark-Up: Video of the mark-up and a rough transcript are available here. Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee praised the bipartisan cooperation to pass the bill – including Democrats like Boxer (D-CA) who had been holding the line opposing action on S. 615 for the time being, consistent with the views of the president. At the same time, Boxer stated explicitly that if later in the process, “this bill is altered in ways that threaten this once in a lifetime opportunity to deal with a looming crisis, I will use every tool at my disposal to stop that from happening.”
Corker made clear his concern that additional amendments to the text could undermine the bipartisan “delicate balance” – and Senators on both sides of the aisle largely cooperated by refraining from offering amendments (except for one). Corker also raised has concern that amendments later on the Senate floor would destroy this delicate balance. Some of his Republican colleagues in the committee made clear they planned to go ahead and do so:
- Barrasso (R-WY) introduced an amendment in Committee to add back into the bill the terrorism certification provision, leading to a lengthy debate in the committee. The amendment ultimately failed by a vote of 6-13, with Corker among those Senators voting “no.” Based on the debate in committee, it seems likely that this will be brought up again on the floor.
- Rubio (R-FL) somewhat contemptuously dismissed Corker’s concern about the fate of the bill, saying in effect that he was more concerned “about the destruction of Israel…” than the “delicate balance” that had been achieved on the bill. Rubio noted that he had wanted to offer an amendment to compel the President to certify to Congress that Iran’s leaders have publicly accepted Israel’s right to exist, and said that “this is an issue to talk about on the floor.”
- Johnson (R-WI) made the case for an amendment to compel the Administration to treat any Iran deal as a treaty (which would then require 67 senators to vote in favor in order to come into effect). Johnson said he would hold off in Committee but revisit the issue on the Senate floor.
What happens next with S. 615: S. 615 now goes to the Senate floor for consideration, most likely very soon. At that point the challenge will be for GOP leaders to prevent Republican amendments that will kill the SFRC’s bipartisan compromise. This may not be a simple task for them, with senators like Rubio and Johnson having already made clear their intention to bring their compromise-killing amendments to the floor. Likewise, in the wake of the SFRC’s unanimous passage of the bill, GOP senators may start having buyer’s remorse – for example, on 4/15, Blunt (R-MO), an original cosponsor of S. 615, made an extraordinary speech explaining that since the bill was supported unanimously in the SFRC, it now “makes me begin to wonder just how much Iran nuclear agreement review there will be in this act.” This buyer’s remorse would be entirely political and partisan, given that – as noted above – the changes to the bill, while not simply cosmetic, leave the legislative thrust of the original bill intact.
Should Senate Republican leaders prove unable to keep their caucus in line, the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats will be in a far stronger position to stand firm against the measure than they had been previously. Assuming the bill passes the Senate in its current form, it then goes to the House, where GOP leaders will face the same challenge (on 4/14 Minority Leader Pelosi, D-CA, circulated a Dear Colleague endorsing the S. 615 compromise). Assuming it passes both the Senate and House in its current form, the White House will sign it into law – something that could happen quickly if there are no bumps in the road along the way.
Winners & Losers: There are clear winners and losers in this week’s S. 615 drama:
- Big Winner: The Obama Administration. The Obama Administration’s move to accept a compromise on S. 615 – not, it seems likely, because they were happy to do so but because they wanted to avoid an ugly showdown (ugly even if they had won it, and uglier still if they hadn’t) – has turned out to be a remarkable feat of political jujitsu (regardless if this was deliberate or by happy accident). It has ended the battle over this bill in a manner that has kept the Iranians at the negotiating table, placated Senate Democrats, locked in key Senate Republicans, and neutered AIPAC and others for whom this bill had become a weapon to attack the Obama Administration and its Iran diplomacy efforts. This move will also take the steam out of any other legislative initiatives – pending or new – to undermine Iran diplomacy; indeed, such efforts would seem churlish and petty – and could be easily opposed by Democrats – given that most Congressional statements criticizing the President’s Iran diplomacy and the framework agreement demanded, as a remedy….passage of S. 615! By putting the fight over S. 615 to rest, the Obama Administration can now focus its energies on the far more important tasks ahead: resolute diplomacy to get a deal that denies Iran a nuclear weapon, and selling that deal to Congress and the American people.
- Second Big Winner: Chairman Corker & the SFRC. SFRC Chairman Corker deserves enormous credit for all along conducting himself in a remarkably statesmanlike manner, notwithstanding the deeply divisive, partisan environment surrounding S. 615 (recall that Corker resisted pressure to move the bill earlier, before the framework agreement was achieved). During this week’s SFRC markup of S. 615, Chairman Corker and Ranking Member Cardin both suggested that the bipartisan compromise on S. 615 a change in the SFRC, from a committee that just holds hearings and argues about issues to a committee that takes consequential action in a responsible, bipartisan manner. Hear, hear!
Big Loser: Those who want to kill talks and prevent a deal. The stakes in these Iran negotiations are huge. Members of Congress who genuinely want formalized, enhanced oversight of an Iran deal – as opposed to those who are using this demand as cover to try to undermine talks and kill a deal – got what they wanted. Members of Congress and outside groups who supported S. 615 as a tool to kill talks and prevent a deal found themselves hoisted on their own legislative petard. For a first-person view on this, see Bill Kristol’s latest pained posting describing S. 615 as “trap” – and objecting not simply to the way the bill was amended, but fundamental logic of the bill, even as originally introduced – despite the fact that AIPAC and virtually every other ostensibly pro-Israel group on the right-hand side of the political spectrum has been lobbying vociferously in support of it since day 1.
Also of note:
4/7: APN statement – Reclaiming U.S. Leadership, Reclaiming Israel’s Future: A Call to Action