by Jim Lobe
No doubt emboldened by the enthusiasm of his fellow Republicans—and perhaps by Netanyahu himself—for Bibi’s attack before Congress on Obama and the P5+1’s negotiations with Iran, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to have overreached, compounding the growing perception that Israel has become a partisan issue.
After Bibi’s speech, McConnell moved to put the Corker bill, which Obama has vowed to veto, on a fast track by invoking a parliamentary rule that could bring the bill to the Senate floor as early as next week. The maneuver appeared aimed at gaining swift Senate passage so that it could move to the House well before the tentative March 24 deadline for a framework agreement with Iran could be finalized.
“We think the timing is important. We think it will help the administration from entering into a bad deal but if they do it, it will provide an opportunity for Congress to weigh in,” McConnell told reporters in announcing his move.
But the effort backfired when all ten Democratic and independent co-sponsors of the Corker bill, notably led by Robert Menendez, objected, arguing: a) that the issue should first be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and b) that it was premature to act at all given the fact that a deal has yet to be completed.
Menendez said he was “outraged” by McConnell’s move:
Mr. President, I come to the floor to express my disappointment that the Majority Leader is asking to Rule 14 the Bipartisan Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act—I repeat—the bipartisan nuclear review act.
I ask the Majority Leader, what happened. Where is the bipartisan part? Where is the bipartisanship that we have expressed, and that I expressed this morning on this floor and last night at AIPAC?
…There is no emergency, this deal—if there is one—won’t be concluded until almost summer. So there is plenty of time… there is no reason to bypass the committee process.
On Wednesday morning—that is, less than 24 hours after Netanyahu’s speech—the ten senators put their objections in a letter addressed to McConnell in which they said they would not vote for the bill unless it was first marked up by the Committee and, in any case, not before March 24.
On a day defined by serious discourse about Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, at a moment when legislators are contemplating the most serious national security issue of our time, we are disappointed that you have proceeded outside of regular order which suggests that the goal of this maneuver is to score partisan political points, rather than pursue a substantive strategy to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The deadline for a political framework agreement with Iran is March 24 and a final agreement is not expected to be reached until the end of June. There is no immediate or urgent need to circumvent the Committee process and we are disappointed that you’ve pursued this partisan course of action.
The letter clearly kills the likelihood of Congressional action before March 24 and hints that at least some of the co-sponsors may not be prepared to take up either the Corker or the Menendez-Kirk bills until July 1, the deadline for a comprehensive agreement to be reached. The rebuff of McConnell must be quite frustrating to both Netanyahu and the Republican leadership which clearly hoped they could gain a veto-proof majority in Congress against a deal even before it was signed. The administration also now has more time to persuade the Democratic and independent co-sponsors that the Corker bill, as presently drafted, is almost certain to sabotage any deal.
Moreover, McConnell’s aborted effort would tend to confirm the worst fears of AIPAC (which wasn’t informed about Boehner’s invitation in advance), the Anti-Defamation League, and other mainstream Jewish organizations that Israel is fast becoming a partisan issue as a result of the machinations of Netanyahu (who, given the rapturous welcome he received by Republican members of Congress, really should consider running for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination thus fusing the transnational Republican-Likud coalition) his ambassador, Ron Dermer, Boehner, and McConnell himself. Democrats who would otherwise be susceptible to supporting new sanctions legislation or the Corker bill are more likely to rally behind Obama if either is seen primarily as a Republican initiative to weaken the president. (This is similar to what happened last year as the momentum behind the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill stalled, and the Republican leadership kept pressing for it unilaterally.)
In the latest development, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, as well as five other Democrats, Wednesday introduced the “Iran Congressional Oversight Act of 2015” which, like the purported intention of the Corker bill, ensures a Congressional role in monitoring implementation of any final deal, but omits the provisions to which the administration objected. The new bill clearly appears designed to attract actual and potential Democratic and independent co-sponsors of the Corker bill.
What is remarkable is how quickly the momentum created by Netanyahu’s speech has dissipated on Capitol Hill by McConnell’s clumsiness. “I think the bill—barring what happened yesterday—was headed for a veto-proof majority,” Sen. Angus King, the one independent co-sponsor of the bill, told The Hill Wednesday. “I think yesterday derailed that to some extent.”
One of the big questions arising out of this debacle is whether McConnell acted without consulting anyone else except maybe Boehner (whose actions and explanations have struck me as those of a “useful idiot”—an expression used by Lenin for someone who is easily manipulated by political forces he doesn’t fully understand—since he first announced his invitation to Netanyahu). Or was this another scheme cooked up by Dermer, and possibly the Israeli prime minister himself, as well as other key figures, such as Bill Kristol and Sheldon Adelson, who appear to have played important roles in getting Boehner to issue the invite in the first place and who were gathered together in the House gallery, presumably as “special guests”—along with Elie Wiesel, among others—during Tuesday’s speech?
Meanwhile, if you need a synopsis of the problems with the Corker bill, Ed Levine has just put out an executive summary of the analysis we published on the blog earlier this week.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore