House Democrats are privately becoming increasingly skeptical of a new nuclear deal with Iran, as concerns mount over carveouts in the accord that will provide Iran with billions of dollars in cash windfalls and permit Russia to build up the country’s nuclear sites, according to Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC).
"We’re in the minority. But there are a lot of Democrats who don’t like this deal," McCaul told the Washington Free Beacon in an exclusive interview last week from the sidelines of the annual Republican policy retreat. HFAC members on both sides of the aisle emerged from a recent classified briefing on the deal with mounting concerns that the concessions granted under the deal outweigh the benefits of limited restrictions on Iran’s contested nuclear program.
McCaul said that during the briefing, "I was doing a whip count [and] it was not good for the [Biden] administration." Republicans would need at least eight House Democrats to break ranks and vote with them in opposition to a deal. And though the deal is likely to be announced well before the midterm elections, it is expected that if Republicans take the majority they will move to reimpose sanctions on Iran and nullify the terms of any deal Biden inks.
McCaul’s comments confirm a series of Free Beacon reports citing senior congressional sources who said Democrats are increasingly vocal in their opposition to a new nuclear deal. As negotiations reach their final stage and more details begin to leak about the agreement, foreign policy leaders in both parties have seized on carveouts that will allow Russia to cash in a $10 billion contract to construct Iranian nuclear reactors. With the ongoing war in Ukraine generating anti-Russia sentiment, provisions in the nuclear deal that empower and enrich Moscow will be a hard sell on Capitol Hill.
McCaul also said he sees signs the Biden administration will attempt to circumvent congressional approval of a new deal, in violation of a 2015 law mandating that lawmakers be given a vote on any new agreements with Tehran.
"They’re lawyers, I can already tell from the questions I ask, they’re already trying to get around this by saying, Congress already approved the JCPOA," McCaul explained, referring to the 2015 nuclear accord by its official acronym. "This is not a replica, this is not identical. It’s different. Legally, it does require under the law they comply. But I think they’re going to try to get around that."
In the House, however, lawmakers could invoke a procedural motion known as a discharge petition to bring the agreement or a resolution of disapproval to a vote.
A discharge petition allows stalled measures—such as a new nuclear deal—to be brought to the House floor for a vote. It must have 218 supporters, meaning that with every Republican voting in favor of invoking this procedure, a number of Democrats also would have to join.
McCaul said he sees this as a viable option. "If we can get enough Democrats to get to 218, which maybe wouldn’t be that hard," the House could express disapproval of a new deal.
"It doesn’t look good from a whip count standpoint on the Democrats' side. There’s some opposition," McCaul said, though he declined to elaborate on specific numbers.
McCaul also said Iran currently stands about 21 months away from a functional nuclear weapon. It could enrich uranium to the levels needed to fuel a bomb within 90 days, McCaul said. From there, Iran would likely take about 18 months to attach the warhead to a device.
In addition to a new deal benefiting Russia—which has served as the United States' prime interlocutor in talks—a revamped deal would restrict Iran’s nuclear program until 2024. At that time, many of the restrictions will evaporate as part of sunset clauses written into the original accord.
"Most of the restrictions on their ability to build a bomb will be gone and it almost ensures a nuclear Iran," McCaul said.