WASHINGTON -- Less than twelve hours after President Barack Obama directly warned lawmakers against nudging their way into talks over Iran’s nuclear program, members of Congress made clear that they weren’t planning to heed his cautions.
“I have met no one that believes that us weighing in would do anything to destabilize these negotiations,” newly-minted Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said at a Wednesday hearing. “Not a single one of [our negotiating partners] has any concerns whatsoever with Congress having the ability to vote up or down on a final deal. Many of them believe it strengthens our hand.”
Obama promised in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that he would veto any new sanctions legislation that makes it to his desk. His administration has been insistent that it does not consider Congress' approval necessary for signing a deal capping Iran's nuclear program.
In more than two hours of adversarial exchanges, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken and David Cohen, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, appealed to lawmakers to halt their efforts to push through a number of legislative proposals on Iran currently floating in Congress.
A proposal being pushed by Corker requires Congress to have an up-or-down vote on any nuclear deal before the U.S. signs on -- a condition supported by a growing chorus of lawmakers. While the White House has been skeptical of that idea thus far, Blinken admitted Wednesday that the proposal wouldn’t violate the Joint Plan of Action, the interim agreement brokered between Iran and the P5+1 negotiating partners in November 2013.
However, Blinken said, any action by Congress could isolate the U.S. from its negotiating partners, leaving Washington with the blame if a deal is not reached.
“Up until now, we’ve kept countries on board,” Blinken said. ”If they lose that conviction, the U.S. -- and not Iran -- would be isolated.”
Blinken also noted that allowing lawmakers to weigh in could threaten the White House’s ability to act on its own in the future.
“There’s concern that this could set a precedent for future executive branch actions,” Blinken said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have made no secret of their displeasure about being boxed out of the Iran talks by the administration.
“The State Department is way off-base to think that the Congress isn't going to have a role as to any agreement that might actually come about or any actions that may come about as a result of a lack of agreement,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview early this month. “This is not a unitary government, and the sooner they understand that, the better off they'd be as far as engaging us rather than stiff-arming us."
After all, panel member Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Wednesday, it’s lawmakers who have given the White House its key negotiating chip.
“The only lever in this negotiation is the congressionally imposed sanctions regime,” he said at the committee hearing, adding that while he supports the administration's efforts, he sees congressional approval as essential.
While the White House insists it has adequately consulted Congress in the course of the nuclear negotiations, Corker said at the hearing that lawmakers’ briefings have usually come in the form of a post-facto phone call -- and that by that time, the information has already been made public.
"Generally when we’re receiving that phone call,” he said, “we’re reading [it] in The New York Times.”
The administration, though, has said that it values congressional input in the process and that it intends to continue consulting members of Congress throughout the talks. Additionally, Obama promised lawmakers that, should a deal not be reached, he would make new sanctions a priority.
"My main message to Congress at this point is, just hold your fire. Nobody around the world, least of all the Iranians, doubt my ability to get additional sanctions passed should the negotiations fail," Obama said earlier this month in a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Congress has been threatening for more than a year to legislate its way into the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, by threatening either to pass new economic sanctions on Iran or, as Corker has proposed, to mandate an up-or-down vote from Congress on any nuclear deal.
Obama's veto threat in the State of the Union was a strange déjà vú moment, given that at last year's speech, the president issued the same warning to Congress on Iran. At that time, the U.S. had just agreed to the Joint Plan of Action, and was optimistic that a deal would be reached by summer 2014. Now, a year later, talks have been extended to July 2015, with Obama himself saying there is only a 50-50 chance of an amenable deal -- and the same veto threats remain.
But while Democrats were generally content to let legislative threats against Iran languish rather than actively pushing them forward, the new Republican majority is isn't likely to be as cooperative.
Though Congress has been back in session for less than three weeks, three different legislative proposals have already been floated -- all authored by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In addition to Corker's proposal, Menendez has his own measure, which he is sponsoring along with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). The bill, which has bipartisan support in the Senate, would impose new sanctions on Tehran if an amenable deal is not reached. In addition, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that she was working on an alternative proposal with fellow committee member Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Boxer and Paul's legislation, which the California senator described as "moderate," would provide an expedited avenue for Congress to pass sanctions if the administration finds Iran in violation of any nuclear agreements.
Despite the momentum on Capitol Hill, though, Iran experts have warned that passing new sanctions at this time could endanger the prospects of reaching a deal, disrupting a delicate relationship between Tehran and international negotiators that is already characterized by substantial mistrust.
Corker’s proposal has not yet garnered an outpouring of bipartisan co-sponsors. However, Democrats at Wednesday’s hearing expressed vocal support for the measure, in an indication that lawmakers may be inching toward passing a veto-proof measure that legislates a role for Congress in the nuclear negotiations -- a situation the White House hopes to avoid.
The latest round of negotiations concluded Sunday. The administration has said it intends to reach a framework deal by March and hopes to work out technical details to reach a final deal by July.