Mitch tries to be a tough-guy: What's behind McConnell's latest Iran gambit

Both bills threatening an Iranian nuclear deal are shelved, for now. What should Dems do when they come back?

Published March 6, 2015 11:29AM (EST)

Mitch McConnell                              (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Esteemed parliamentary genius puppetmaster Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader whose greatest accomplishment so far has been to fail to override a veto, played a cute trick yesterday. He abruptly announced that a bipartisan bill allowing Congress to vote on any nuclear deal the Obama administration and other nations negotiate with Iran would come up next Tuesday. Meaning the bill, most closely associated with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, would bypass consideration from Bob Corker's Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

This pissed off Senate Democrats mightily. Within a few hours, Democratic co-sponsors Bob Menendez, Tim Kaine, and eight other critical Senate Democrats fired off a letter to McConnell withholding their support for the bill until it goes through committee and until the March 24 deadline for a negotiated framework with Iran passes. McConnell, despite our mocking of his alleged genius in the first sentence of this column, is no dummy and certainly knew that fast-tracking the bill was an inflammatory gesture. On Thursday he delayed the vote scheduled for next Tuesday, and now he'll collect a modest sum of political points for showing the Democrats to be hypocrites who hate Israel. (As former Harry Reid aide Jim Manley writes, McConnell likely feels it necessary to play aggressively now to compensate for folding in the DHS appropriations fight. He's gonna play tough guy now! What a party; these guys are the best.)

The Obama administration will welcome the delay. Now both of the bills put forth to meddle with Iranian negotiations -- this one and the one imposing sanctions  --are off the table until the end of the month, after we know if a preliminary deal has been struck. For this the administration can thank its good dear friend Bibi Netanyahu, whose decision to run into the arms of John Boehner cooled Democratic interest in screwing up the administration's signature diplomatic initiative.

But it is only a delay. And after March 24, these Democratic members of Congress probably won't have lost their interest in "weighing in" on the would-be Iran deal. Obama has pledged to veto the Corker bill, but this one has a serious chance of securing a veto-proof majority.

I understand members' desire to weigh in on any deal and the principle behind that desire, even if this deal doesn't fit under the description of "treaty." But to these Democratic members -- at least the ones who are acting on principle, and not just the ones with the AIPAC gun to their head -- I have a question: look around, and what do you see?

I personally do not see a Congress that is willing to give the P5+1 deal much of fair hearing! I see a Congress that has absolutely no idea how to move forward on even the most basic of things that they agree on, whether that's funding the federal government or passing an AUMF for the war against ISIS. We're not quite at the point where they can't pass a resolution naming a post office yet, but that can't be too far in the future.

And then we come to an issue such as the Iranian nuclear program. Let's look at this statement from Mitch McConnell's spokesperson announcing the vote delay:

It is clear that Senate Democrats will filibuster their own bill—a bill they rushed to introduce before the White House cut a deal with Iran. So, instead, the Senate will turn next to the anti-human-trafficking legislation while Democrats decide whether or not they believe they and Congress as a whole should be able to review and vote on any deal the President cuts with the leaders of Iran,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell.

"Any deal the President cuts with the leaders of Iran." As if it's just Obama and the Ayatollah over in Switzerland, kicking it, laughing. Does it sound to you, reader, like Mitch McConnell is going to leap into the particulars of the text, weigh the pros and cons, and make a measured judgment on the deal? He or any other Republican?

This is a bill to guarantee that the deal dies. Bob Menendez is probably fine with that, but the rest of the Democrats should consider how important it is that they have their "voice heard" in this trap. Watering the bill down in committee into something more like a non-binding resolution would be a wise idea.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Barack Obama Bob Corker Congress Editor's Picks Foreign Policy Iran Iran Nuclear Talks Mitch Mcconnell Senate