Neocons' humiliating defeat: How the hotheads lost the Senate's Iran debate

The Iran deal review bill passed committee, but only after it had been substantially weakened

Published April 15, 2015 7:22PM (EDT)

  (AP/Susan Walsh/Chris Usher/Janet Van Ham/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Susan Walsh/Chris Usher/Janet Van Ham/Photo montage by Salon)

Markup is done, it's out of committee, and for the time being the only appropriate response to yesterday's action on the Corker-Menendez Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act is: phew. That could have been much worse.

Facing resistance from Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman, and Sen. Ben Cardin, worked out a deal to bring the bill to the full chamber. It addressed each of the White House top concerns: language in the original bill that (1) prevented the Obama administration from suspending sanctions against Iran during a 60-day congressional review period and (2) required the administration to certify that "Iran has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or a United States person anywhere in the world" every 90 days. In the deal, reached late Monday night, the 60-day window would be halved to 30 and the certification would be removed. (The administration would still have to regularly report on Iran's sponsorship of terrorism.)

The changes made the bill "benign" enough, to use the word of Corker-Menendez skeptic Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), that the White House could support it. The President "would be willing to sign the proposed compromise that is working its way through the committee," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said shortly before yesterday's SFRC vote on Corker-Menendez, which passed unanimously after the changes.

This doesn't mean that the White House will be especially thrilled to sign this bill. It would much prefer Congress simply go away, and that 30-day period before any sanctions can be lifted won't empower U.S. negotiators the way that Democrats like Sen. Tim Kaine suppose it will. But the bill as amended was coasting towards a majority well beyond veto-proof. Since its most acute threat, the terrorism certification language, was eliminated -- Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) explained during the mark-up that he originally included that language before the preliminary framework emerged and made clear that the deal won't lift terrorism-related sanctions -- the White House figures it might as well get on board.

The central purpose of the bill very much still remains. What good would a bill be without a central purpose? It would allow Congress, at the end of that 30-day period, to pass a resolution approving or rejecting a deal. This isn't as terrifying as it seems. As Sen. Kaine explained to the Washington Post last week, those resolutions will be subject to both filibusters and presidential vetoes -- and if nothing passes, the deal goes forward. So while it will be almost impossible to get a resolution approving the deal and repealing the sanctions to the president's desk, there's little chance that a resolution of disapproval could get to the president's desk either -- or if it did, that Congress could cobble together the two-thirds majorities to override Obama's veto. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) gamed this out during the committee hearing, too, but unlike Kaine, he did so as an argument for why Corker-Menendez was weak tea. He voted for it anyway, because a long-shot chance of blowing up a deal is better than no shot at all.

The bill still has to get through the full Senate, and then the House. There were some distressing signals from Sens. Johnson and Rubio that the aggressive amendments they were planning to introduce in the mark-up, but didn't out of respect for the deal Corker struck, may reappear once the bill is on the floor. And who knows what colorful amendments those characters in the House will want to consider? (That may not be the worst thing for the administration. If the House puts in some nasty provision, that would at least delay passage if the two chambers have to go to conference, or kill it altogether if the differences prove irreconcilable.)

As much as Tim Kaine thinks there's "zero chance" of that happening, the bill still does present obstacles for negotiators. We've already mentioned the 30-day review period. But after that, Congress is going to vote on approval and/or disapproval resolutions. Though neither has much chance of getting into law, the rejection of an approval resolution could signal to Iran that Congress will never vote to remove the sanctions, as it will have to do in the long-term. The Obama administration has the power to suspend those sanctions for many months at a time. Its hope, in the long-term, is that if the deal can be in place long enough for Iran to show that it's adhering to the requirements, that will bring enough pressure down on Congress to pass legislation repealing the sanctions. The Corker-Menendez debate has made it quite public that Congress is not ready to permanently lift sanctions on Iran, and won't be ready for a while. That's not going to make the Iranian negotiating team's sell in Tehran any easier.

The White House's acceptance of the newly watered-down but not completely "benign" version of Corker-Menendez at least lets it signal to Iran that it has our political drama under control. It might require a flexible interpretation of events, but the administration can now say: there was a bad bill, but we were able to defang its worst provisions. You can trust this administration to keep our domestic meddling in check.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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