WASHINGTON — The White House said Tuesday its decision to back a bill increasing Congressional oversight on any nuclear deal with Iran was due to concessions, but many in Washington think the about face is more about adding up veto-busting votes than the subtraction of controversial measures.
Supporters and opponents of the bill alike questioned the administration’s narrative and hinted the move was more likely spun as a way to get the White House on board a bill apparently steaming toward passage no matter how many veto threats the president makes.
“Over the course of the morning someone in the White House counted to 67, and then they counted to 290, and then they decided they were better off trying to spin a reversal now than a veto override later,” quipped Omri Ceren, press director at The Israel Project, referring to the number of votes needed for a super majority in the Senate and House, which would override a veto.
For weeks, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry had campaigned vociferously against the bill, drafted by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
They argued that the bill would set back nuclear talks with Iran and also violate the constitutional authority of the executive branch to determine American foreign policy. As late as Tuesday morning, Kerry was on Capitol Hill briefing senators on talks with Iran.
Obama had promised to veto the Corker-Menendez legislation, which would require the president to submit the full text of any comprehensive agreement with Iran to Congress for review, as well as a verification assessment on Iranian compliance and a certification that the agreement meets non-proliferation goals and does not jeopardize US national security.
Anticipating a veto, Corker sought to enlist the support of 67 members of the Senate, enough to assure that the Senate could override a presidential veto.
As Senate Democrats and Republicans negotiated to reach a version of the bill that both parties could embrace, Corker announced hours before the vote that he had secured his veto-proof supermajority.
Hours after Corker’s comments – and shortly before the bill faced its first vote in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee — White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that “what we have made clear to Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is that the president would be willing to sign the proposed compromise that is working its way through the committee.”
“This vote is clearly a defeat for a White House that has so strenuously opposed any such Congressional review,” commented David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel. “The White House’s effort to claim some kind of victory here is as ludicrous as their claim of victory in our negotiations with Iran. Someone needs to explain to these guys that the goal of a negotiation is to actually get what you want and not simply adopt the other guy’s positions as your own.”
In the weeks before the vote, Brog’s organization mobilized supporters to write nearly 80,000 letters in support of the legislation.
Tuesday’s unanimous vote, Brog said, was “a clear victory for all who have argued that Congress has a duty to review any nuclear deal with Iran.”
The White House’s statements implied that the bipartisan talks had fundamentally changed the bill so that it was now possible to support it.
As a result of the negotiations between Corker and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the revised legislation reduced the time Congress has to review a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran from 60 days to 30 days, with the possibility of extending it to 52 days.
It also removed text that linked sanctions removal to presidential certification that Iran had renounced state-sponsored terrorism – a condition that many of the bill’s initial opponents saw as a deal-killer.
In the end, Republicans backed down from supporting a number of hard-line amendments that placed numerous other conditions on sanctions removal, and fence-sitting Democrats including Sen. Chris Coons agreed to support the compromise bill.
“This legislation is exactly the congressional review we’ve been working on since day one,” Corker claimed.
“I think the reason the administration in the last two hours has chosen the path that they’re now taking, is the number of Senators that they realized were going to support this legislation,” he asserted during the committee hearing.
Even the administration’s former allies in opposing the bill, including the National Iranian American Council, rejected the White House’s claims that a suitable compromise had been reached.
“NIAC has consistently opposed S.615 because of our concern that it threatened to undermine negotiations and derail a deal. The compromise amendment that was struck by Senators Corker and Cardin does not change the fundamental problems with this bill. It still threatens to derail the talks and kill a deal, and we remain opposed to it,” complained the organization’s policy director, Jamal Abdi.
“We are hopeful that, because the Administration has indicated they can live with this version of the bill, there is a plan in place to ensure it will not derail a deal,” Abdi continued in a statement released before the Tuesday afternoon committee vote. “We are concerned, however, that this bill only drives up the cost of securing a deal with Iran. The uncertainty the bill creates regarding US ability to provide sanctions relief, combined with the backlash that it could generate in Iran to limit their negotiators’ maneuverability, could very well mean greater US concessions will be necessary to secure a deal.”