Who’s Killing Corker’s Iran Bill, and Why

by Derek Davison

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) sufficiently neutered his Iran deal review bill—now known as the “Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act”—that two weeks ago it passed out of his committee unanimously. Moreover, the White House promised not to veto it. Of course, that White House pledge was predicated on Corker’s bill being passed as is, unamended, by the full Senate and then the House. According to The New York Times, that’s not going to happen:

A bill to give Congress a voice in the nuclear deal with Iran is now endangered by Republican amendments that would peel away bipartisan support for a measure begrudgingly accepted by the White House this month.

Amendments filed by lawmakers last week include one that would require Iran to recognize Israel and another that would give any final nuclear deal the status of a treaty, which would require ratification by two-thirds of the Senate. Another proposal would require the release of American citizens detained in Iran as part of an agreement.

These proposed amendments include some obvious “poison pills.” For instance, requiring Iran to recognize Israel is a worthy effort in principle, but it simply isn’t happening in the short term, and there’s no particular reason to demand that it should happen as part of this nuclear deal. Also included is some bad precedent setters. So, for example, if the Iran deal is legally defined as a “treaty,” then it’s hard to envision any future international agreement not being defined that way, which would severely tie the hands of future presidents in conducting foreign policy. Finally, there are some probably well-intentioned but misguided amendments. We need to negotiate the release of Americans being unjustly imprisoned in Iran, but it should be done in parallel to or immediately after concluding the nuclear agreement, which is plenty complex enough without adding other issues to the discussion.

What these proposed amendments all have in common is that, if they’re added to the Corker bill, the White House’s promise not to veto it becomes null and void. In addition, at least some of the bill’s Democratic support (necessary to override a veto) will peel away, putting the bill’s chances of passing in peril. So say both Corker and Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-MD), who have been heavily lobbying their fellow senators to leave the bill alone. They know its chances of being enacted decrease the more amendments are heaped upon it.

Presumably the Republicans who are about to try to load the Corker bill up with those amendments realize what they’re doing. It’s a mistake to assume anything with the “Bomb Bomb Iran” types, whose stunts so far have done more to hurt their cause than to further it. But at least a few of them must realize the likely outcome. So why are they killing the one chance they have at even slightly increasing congressional oversight of a comprehensive deal?

Former Bush DOJ lawyer—so you know I’m not cherry-picking from a dovish blog—Jack Goldsmith essentially says it’s about political optics:

In this light, I can think of three related reasons why opponents of the Iran deal want to include amendments to kill the Iran Review bill even though doing so would make it “easier” for the President to implement the deal. First, they might want to burnish their credentials as anti-Iran hawks.  (Amendment sponsors include presidential candidates Senators Cruz and Rubio.) Second, they might think that passing the Review bill and then failing to overcome a veto is worse politically (i.e. looks like more of a win for the President) than if the bill does not pass and they are unable to muster the veto-proof votes to kill the Iran deal. Perhaps they think the stakes of the loss are lower without the extensive and elaborate information-gathering and review that the Iran Review bill contemplates. Third, the unamended bill allows Democrats to appear slightly tough on Iran by voting to review the Iran deal and to delay its implementation, safe in the knowledge that the leader of the party can still negotiate and implement the kind of deal he wants. The amendments complicate this position since the Democrats have to vote (and take a stand on) them.

Instead of half a loaf, these brave defenders against Iranian aggression prefer no loaf because that will probably look better to Republican primary voters and big-money donors. Taking House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) at his word when he says he doesn’t have the votes to override an Obama veto of any resolution disapproving of a comprehensive Iran deal, they figure that passing Corker (which provides the opportunity for such a resolution) won’t make any difference in the end. So they might as well use the opportunity to engage in a little futile political theater. They’re being joined in this effort by the usual 101st Chairborne neocons, like Commander Bill Kristol and torture fan (and still inexplicably a columnist at a major newspaper) Marc Thiessen. Let’s see how it works out for them.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.


One Comment

  1. I find Jack Goldsmith’s assessment that the attempt to bill-kill is about political optics entirely plausible. Looking at the background of who’s making these attempts makes it all the more clear: These are presidential hopefuls who’re political lightweights who are trying to bolster their resume going up against the Hillary juggernaut They are relative unknowns who can be quite susceptible . While big on rhetoric they lack experience, name recognition and anything noteworthy. It’s funny that the same people who bashed Obama’s lack of “executive experience” and being a relative new-comer to the Senate now have to defend their own boys who hold an even weaker hand than Obama did in ’08. As much as they have ridiculed Obama, they’re actually trying to follow his footsteps to the WH. Specifically, Obama could counter his critics about lack of experience by pointing to how he was right about his anti-Iraq War vote when all of his opponents (including Hillary and McCain) were wrong and couldn’t wash the stain of their pro-war votes now matter how much they danced around with “if I knew then what I know now”. Now, these candidates are hoping to do the same by hoping the Iran deal goes wrong and then pointing to their anti-Iran votes to prove their political expertise. As much as they’re going to try to chip away Hillary’s “executive experience” advantage with the hammer the GOP specifically manufactured for that purpose (Benghazi) it’s a tall order to overcome that disadvantage. So with nothing else to show, these candidates are scrambling to manufacture bold stands to make a name for themselves. It’s a sign of desperation, of course, and the GOP wouldn’t have to resort to such measures if they were not stuck with such crummy candidates. (As a side note, Romney might have done better if he had sat out the 2012 elections and tried his luck this time around given how weak their field is.)
    Regardless, I agree with the author’s assertion about this being about political optics, scoring a point with donors and resume building. All the while, Hillary is cleverly staying vague about where she stands on the Iran deal so she could take either position depending on how the deal goes.

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