Chuck Schumer's epic Iran fail: How the hawkish Dem may accidentally save a nuclear deal

The incoming leader's support for congressional "review" of an Iran deal isn't bringing Dems on board just yet

Published April 9, 2015 2:15PM (EDT)

Sen. Chuck Schumer  (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Sen. Chuck Schumer (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

The White House's best hope for reaching a final Iranian nuclear agreement without congressional interference remains the same as it ever was: praying that outspoken war-lovers like Tom Cotton, Bill Kristol, John Bolton and Dick Cheney continue to accept all media requests extended to them to talk, and talk, and talk, and talk some more. The White House would almost certainly love to see Dick Cheney on every Sunday talk show, every week, from now through the June 30 deadline for a deal. The more he and his fellow hawkish travelers talk, the clearer the bad faith behind Republicans' demand for a congressional "review" of a deal become. We're only half-joking, or quarter-joking. Nothing over the past few months has brought deal-wary Democrats back to their senses like the various stunts pulled by self-defeating Republican hawks.

But Democrats, particularly in the Senate, still haven't entirely come back to their senses. The Corker-Menendez congressional review bill, which could blow up negotiations, is still on the cusp of reach a veto-proof majority in the Senate. No less a figure than Sen. Chuck Schumer, whom Senate Democrats inexplicably threw their weight behind to succeed retiring leader Harry Reid without any sort of tryout period, has voiced his support for Corker-Menendez as it's currently written.

The news for people who aren't interested in seeing Senate Democrats join Republicans in an effort to give Iran a legitimate excuse to walk away from negotiations at the last minute got a little better Wednesday. Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee are prepping a couple of amendments to water down the language in Corker-Menendez to the point the White House might be willing to support it, or at least not have to worry about it shredding two years of intensive multilateral diplomatic efforts.

Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a Foreign Relations member who had been on board with Corker-Menendez, is now undecided. He introduced an amendment Wednesday that would "remove a requirement that the Obama administration certify that Iran isn’t directly involved in sponsoring terrorism attacks against the United States." The P5+1's negotiations over Iran's nuclear program are negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, not negotiations over every problem the United States has with Iran. Iran's sponsorship of terrorism is a topic for another day, and the sanctions that the United States has imposed on Iran over its sponsorship of terrorism will not be lifted as part of the nuclear deal.

But the White House's central problem with Corker-Menendez is a provision that suspends the administration's ability to lift nuclear sanctions on Iran for a 60-day period while Congress reviews the agreement. The schedule for lifting sanctions is (still) one of the most difficult questions in the negotiations. Iran wants at least some sanctions lifted immediately, and if Congress restricts the president's ability to do that, it's going to cause problems. So Democrats, as Politico reports, are considering an amendment that would either eliminate altogether that 60-day period or perhaps cut it down to 30 days.

Since Republicans control the Foreign Relations Committee and probably won't have much interest in these modifications, Democrats' real opportunity to extract changes will come when the bill is out of committee. Critical Democrats like Coons, Mark Warner, and Bill Nelson are all wavering on their support for the bill in its current form. If Democrats can stay together as a bloc that denies Republicans a veto-proof majority -- or better yet, a 60-vote majority needed to surmount a filibuster -- that gives them leverage to demand changes. Keeping the conference together won't be easy because THANKS AGAIN, CHUCK SCHUMER.

No, but really, if there's one silver lining to Schumer's move, it's that it alerted more people to the important role Senate Democrats will be playing in the coming weeks. Some of the biggest progressive groups in the country -- Credo, Daily Kos, Democracy for America, Political Action, and USAction -- sent a letter to Senate Democrats Wednesday to "inform" them that they raise a lot of money and they will "hold accountable members of your caucus who vote with Republicans" on either Corker-Menendez or Kirk-Menendez, the bill that would dangle a new round of sanctions over Iran's head. (Kirk-Menendez, for what it's worth, does appear to have be sidelined indefinitely, but you never know. You just never know with these crazy Congress people, these clowns in Congress!) A lot of Senate Democrats don't really like progressive groups, but they do enjoy taking their money, so the threat of cutting that off is one way of getting their attention.

It's hard to see, when this vote is put to the floor, 13 Senate Democrats defying the White House after a full-court press during the closing stages of historic negotiations. But, again, just to be sure: Keep talking, Dick Cheney.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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