Corker’s Folly

Column: The proposal to submit the Iran deal to Congress will backfire

Bob Corker
Bob Corker / AP
March 13, 2015

You’re a member of Congress. You’re angry because President Obama has cut you out of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Like the overwhelming majority of Americans, you believe any deal this White House and this president strikes with Tehran won’t prevent the Islamic theocracy from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, offers you a chance to weigh in on a deal. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 requires the president to submit to Congress the text of whatever "nonbinding" accord he reaches with Iran.

Over the following 60 days, Corker says, Congress would hold hearings. It would have the opportunity to pass a joint resolution approving or condemning the agreement. Approval, of course, would mean that Obama could proceed. Disapproval would block the president from lifting sanctions on Iran and most likely upend the accord.

Seems like an attractive and bipartisan way for Congress to prevent an indefensible capitulation to a hostile regime. Which is presumably why, as I write, the bill has 15 cosponsors, including Democrats Bob Menendez and Joe Donnelly and Republican Rand Paul. And why the White House has issued a veto threat.

So: Would you vote for the Corker plan?

I wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t for the same reason I do not support an authorization of the use of military force against ISIS: The legislation as currently written would play into the president’s hands and restrict the ability of the next commander in chief to repair the damage Obama has caused to America’s security and position in the world. That’s not Corker’s intent. But it’s the likeliest consequence of this bill under this president at this moment.

Why? Because the legislation’s supporters assume that they will be able to overcome a presidential veto not once but twice.

Imagine that the act clears the 60-vote hurdle of a filibuster. It then passes the Senate and House and moves to the president’s desk. Where Obama vetoes it in his typically dramatic and peevish fashion, bemoaning congressional encroachment on his official prerogatives.

For the Iran Nuclear Act of 2015 to become law in the first place, then, Congress would have to rebuke Obama by overriding his veto. Which requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

"Historically," the Senate website tells us, "Congress has overridden fewer than 10 percent of all presidential vetoes." I’m not surprised: considering how hard it is to get 60 votes in today’s Senate, it’s near impossible to think of any circumstances under which a controversial measure on a polarizing issue of national security wins 67 votes.

Coalitions fray. The president is powerful. So is the pressure to conform to the highest-ranking official in one’s party, who in the Democrats’ case lives at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and is hell-bent on some sort of accommodation with Iran. Senators Tim Kaine of Virginia and Michael Bennet of Colorado, for example, have signed on to Corker. Does anyone believe these two Obamabots have any intention of striking down the Iran deal?

But, since we are playing make-believe, suppose that despite everything we know about the modern Democratic Party and the institution of the United States Senate, Corker’s bill defies the president’s veto pen and becomes law.

What then? The act stipulates that Congress has the duration of the review period to pass a joint resolution either approving the deal, in which case Obama may lift sanctions, or rejecting it, in which case Obama may not. Under Corker, Congress would send a joint resolution to the president, perhaps by simple majorities in each chamber. Congress would thus conceivably register its disapproval of the deal, if not actually stop it.

Conceivably. Because, if the House and Senate don’t pass "a joint resolution stating in substance that the Congress does not favor the agreement," and by more than two-thirds votes in each chanber, then "action involving any measure of statutory sanctions relief" for Iran "may be taken" by Obama. The accommodation with Iran would proceed.

And even if the joint resolution of condemnation did pass, if it were delivered to the president, what would stop Obama from vetoing it? His critics would be back where they started: needing more than a dozen Democrats to join with Republicans to impose non-waivable sanctions and scuttle the signature achievement of President Obama’s second term. I know Democrats. They won’t betray their man.

If the deal with Iran were a treaty, Obama would have to submit it to the Senate, and would be responsible for producing the 67 votes for ratification. But it’s clear that Obama has no intention of sending anything to Congress. He’s more likely to send the deal to the United Nations.

That’s because Obama knows he doesn’t have the votes in Congress for ratification. What Corker doesn’t understand is that he doesn’t have enough votes to either pass his bill or give its resolution of disapproval teeth. Neither side has 67 votes. The matter is too important; the emotions too strong; the consensus long undone.

The Iran Agreement Act initiates a phony process that in the best case leaves Iran hawks exactly where they are right now: in search of 67 votes to pass sanctions and torpedo a bad deal that puts Islamic fundamentalists on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power. The best you can say about the bill is that it provides the chance to pass a resolution of disapproval that can’t be filibustered—but that resolution also can’t become law as long as Obama is president.

Worse, if the resolution of disapproval is vetoed, the administration will be able to say that the nuclear deal survived the congressional review that Republicans pleaded for. Rather than allowing the Republican Congress to defeat the agreement with Iran, the Corker bill would result in giving implicit backing to it if Congress blew its chance at review. And it’s not like Republicans to blow chances or anything.

Far better for Congress, I think, to steer clear of any legislation that would put their fingerprints on a bad deal with a bad government. Better to keep making the case against any deal that preserves Iranian enrichment capability and does nothing about the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program, Iranian ICBM development, Iranian support for terrorism worldwide, Iranian human rights abuses, and Iranian regional ambitions.

Better to give the Republican presidential candidates the opportunity to warn Americans of a nuclear Iran and remind the world that they will not be bound by an arrangement that was never submitted to or approved by the United States Congress.

For even an angry member of Congress understands that the way to implement a serious Iran policy isn’t to embark on a confusing and complicated legislative process that may wind up being a gigantic embarrassment. Want to get serious about Iran? Elect a Republican president in 2016.