WASHINGTON -- The White House may be worried that Congress will kill any Iran nuclear deal by demanding a say before the deal is even done. But lawmakers will almost certainly scuttle any agreement later if they don't get that say early on in the process, according to one of the Democrats who is bucking the president on the issue.
President Barack Obama has argued that Congress will have more than enough time to weigh and approve any agreement that he cuts with Tehran, and that if Congress insists on passing a measure to review the deal beforehand, it could weaken the administration's ability to negotiate, and convince hard-liners in Iran that there's no point in talking.
But Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told reporters Tuesday that if Obama doesn't let Congress in on the delicate dealmaking process ahead of time, it will all but ensure that Congress torpedoes the agreement later.
"If you take a look at how Congress, which has the ability, for example, to enact comprehensive immigration reform, has responded to unilateral executive action on immigration, my concern is that if the administration proceeds with an agreement and actually goes to the U.N. and signs an agreement in Switzerland, and then proceeds to seek waivers of the U.N. sanctions, uses their waiver authority, executive authority... there would be a messy, inchoate, unfocused series of actions to try and prevent the implementation of that agreement," Coons said.
He added that he could foresee opponents trying to spike the agreement by attaching riders to all sorts of other bills or appropriations measures, leading to long, ugly battles.
"We would go through an indeterminate period of months in which the Republican-controlled Congress would make its best efforts to prevent any implementation of the agreement," he said.
The administration has also argued that it has the authority to make executive agreements without input from Congress, as administrations have done thousands of times before.
But Coons said this case is different because it ultimately involves Iran sanctions that were passed by Congress, and that can only be undone by Congress.
Coons added that passing a bill that requires speedy review of the deal would tame the process, and make it more likely that Congress would not block Obama.
"What this bill provides is a congressionally enacted, focused and concise framework for the exchange of information and a review by Congress where at the end of the day, if a veto by the president of a resolution of disapproval is not overridden, the agreement proceeds," said Coons.
He pointed out that a key difference between a regular treaty and the Iran deal is that a treaty would require 67 votes to pass.
But a resolution that would necessitate congressional approval or disapproval of an Iran agreement, on the other hand, would only be subject to the usual 60-vote threshold in the Senate. If the Senate disapproved of the Iran agreement, Obama would have the power to veto their disapproval bill, and the Senate can only override a veto with 67 votes. In effect, it means that the president can pass an Iran agreement through the Senate as long as he can keep just 34 lawmakers on his side to prevent an override.
"I think it’s important folks understand that," Coons said. "If the administration can’t persuade 34 senators of whatever party that this agreement is worth proceeding with, then it’s really a bad agreement."
He also acknowledged the rocky relationship between Congress and the White House over the past six years, noting that lawmakers of both parties tend to bristle when they perceive the president to be infringing on their turf.
"The challenge is -- if the administration’s core message is to Congress, ‘You don’t need to have anything to do with this agreement, we’ll give you some briefings’ -- that goes against, on a gut sense, the view that many in Congress have that our constitutional framework imagines congressional relevance to the conduct of foreign policy," Coons said.
"The agreement is essentially going to be about waiving and then rolling back and then ultimately repealing congressionally enacted sanctions," he said. "That’s what makes this different."
When asked if unilateral action by the White House would embolden and strengthen opponents who don't want any agreement with Iran, Coons said yes. But passing the measure being worked out by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), he said, would offer a way to thread the needle, and would still allow Congress to quash anything that it felt was too deeply flawed.
"In my view, if we can get to a midpoint where it’s not subject to the same standard as a treaty, but it’s also not the same standard as an agreement that has no congressional vote and often no congressional review, that midpoint strikes me as appropriate," Coons said.
The Foreign Relations Committee is expected to mark up the bill Tuesday afternoon. Lawmakers on the committee signaled they had reached a deal to pass a measure that would win the approval of enough Democrats, and that the measure would include provisions to keep congressional review short and to leave out any stipulations that an Iran deal address anything other than the nuclear question, such as Iran's recognition of Israel or its sponsorship of terrorist groups.
Coons said those issue are vital, but should be addressed elsewhere.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.