Congress' Iran Bill Battle Isn't Over Yet

04/15/2015 05:41 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

WASHINGTON -- The negotiated efforts by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to unanimously pass a bill to provide congressional oversight of the Iran nuclear deal was hailed on Tuesday as a rare display of bipartisan pragmatism. But the bill still has several hurdles to clear before becoming law.

The 19-0 vote in favor of the bill came after Republicans agreed to significantly relax its requirements in order to bring Democrats on board and to fend off the threat of a veto from President Barack Obama. Within hours of the vote, the bill accrued an additional 29 co-sponsors, and lawmakers who were critical of the original legislation pledged their support.

The unanimous committee vote on Tuesday was the result of political maneuvering by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). He convinced several of his colleagues to withhold controversial amendments that would have likely compelled Democrats to vote down the bill.

Now that the bill has survived a committee vote, some Republicans are expressing dissatisfaction with the results of the compromise between Corker and the Democrats.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), for example, chose not to request a vote on an amendment that would declare any agreement reached among Iran, the U.S. and its five negotiating partners to be a treaty. If the nuclear deal were classified as a treaty, 67 members of the Senate would have to vote in favor before the terms of the deal could be implemented.

Johnson’s amendment sets a much higher bar for congressional approval than the one that currently exists under Corker’s Iran bill. While the legislation does offer lawmakers the option to pass a resolution of disapproval, it would require 67 senators to vote to override a presidential veto. In this unlikely event, the Corker bill only grants lawmakers the authority to keep congressionally-enacted sanctions from being lifted.

The White House maintains that the nuclear agreement is an executive agreement -- and therefore not subject to any type of approval from Congress -- but has indicated willingness to sign the modified Corker bill.

“If [Obama] can convince 34 senators to support a really bad deal, then it goes through. There’s nothing we can do,” Johnson told reporters Wednesday morning. “That’s as much of a role as we’re being allowed.”

Johnson explained that while he abided by Corker’s request to hold off on his treaty suggestion during Tuesday’s markup, he planned to introduce it when the bill moves to the Senate floor for a vote. “I didn’t do it in the committee because we had an agreement with the Democrats to get this thing passed," he said. "So, I thought I’d do it on the floor of the Senate.”

Several Republicans agree with Johnson’s suggestion that the nuclear deal should be approved by the Senate as if it were a treaty.

“That would be fine with me, it should be a treaty,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Huffington Post on Wednesday.

“If it’s an agreement that lasts beyond the executive’s term of office, which it is, then I think it’s a treaty,” echoed Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), referring to the fact that the Iran nuclear deal will remain in effect beyond Obama’s presidency.

But even lawmakers who want a greater say in the nuclear agreement recognize that the treaty amendment would cost the bill much-needed Democratic support.

“It’s not a treaty, and it’s ridiculous to assert that it’s a treaty,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “I haven’t read a single reputable scholar who claims that this rises to the level of a treaty, so I would hope that this amendment would be soundly defeated on the Senate floor.”

According to Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University, Johnson’s suggestion is legally unsound because it is the president, not the Senate, who has the constitutional authority to decide whether the nuclear deal is a treaty or an executive agreement.

“The controlling variable is whether the president submits a treaty to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification,” he said. “The Senate is free to call it whatever the heck it wants, but it cannot simply deem something to be a treaty, and poof -- it becomes a treaty. That’s just not how the process works.”

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