September 2, 2015

For Iran Deal, Surviving Congress is Just the First Step

The Iran nuclear deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, may be the most consequential, comprehensive, and politically fraught diplomatic agreements in modern history.

President Obama has staked his foreign policy legacy on the agreement’s ability to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and avert another Middle East war; but in the next two weeks or so, the deal’s fate will be decided by a Congress that has been hell-bent on blocking the president’s agenda.

The stakes could not be higher. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act passed last spring, Congress gave itself 60 days to review the Iran deal—meaning they have until September 17 to vote on the agreement. If they pass a resolution of disapproval, the president would be blocked from waiving sanctions, forcing the United States to renege on its commitments under the nuclear deal.

The consequences would be severe—Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has warned that the sanctions regime would collapse while Iran would be freed from its nuclear constraints. US credibility among its closest partners would be put in jeopardy. And, with diplomatic options discarded, military action could quickly become an inevitability.

Would Congress really consider the unthinkable and reject the deal?

Anyone who thinks Congress is just huffing and puffing but wouldn’t actually blow the house down has not been paying attention to the chamber’s recent history of dangerous brinksmanship. In July 2008, nobody predicted Congress would vote down the first bank bailout bill, however flawed, and trigger a 10 percent collapse in the stock market. In 2011, few believed lawmakers would refuse to raise the debt ceiling and trigger the downgrading of America’s credit rating. Later that year, most were shocked when Congress failed to pass legislation to avoid a $1 trillion budget cut under sequestration.

Factor in the political pressure from some of the United State’s closest and most influential allies, the vast money being spent by powerful lobbies and major donors, and the opportunity for Republicans to use the Iran deal as a cudgel to cut into the Democratic monopoly among Jewish voters—and we have the recipe for a dangerous and protracted political standoff.

The upside for the president is that, unlike past legislative games of chicken with Capitol Hill, the agreement does not rely on Congress taking action (at least not until year eight when the United States is expected to repeal sanctions). Instead, the survival of the deal relies on Congress doing nothing—which is often the safest bet to play on the Hill.

The question is whether a resolution of disapproval can pass in the Senate—it will almost certainly pass in the House, where Republicans hold 246 seats and only need a simple majority of 218 to pass legislation. But in the Senate, the party breakdown is closer, with 46 Democrats compared to 54 Republicans. And, because the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act specifically mandated that any resolution on the deal must go through regular order, the bar for passing legislation in the Senate is higher—requiring 60 votes for cloture rather than a simple majority.

This means that the deal’s opponents must hold all 54 Republicans while adding six Democrats to pass a disapproval measure. So far, in spite of tens of millions of dollars being spent on everything from national TV ads to Times Square rallies—and even Snap Chat ads—the task of peeling off Democrats has proven more elusive than many in the opposition predicted.

Only two Democratic Senators have come out against the deal. One, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, was a shoe-in. The most reliable Democratic Iran hawk, Menendez had previously led two failed sanctions pushes that the White House warned would have torpedoed the talks. Menendez used his bully pulpit as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to regularly hammer the Administration’s Iran policy, until he relinquished the post after being indicted earlier this year.

The other Democrat to come out against the deal was more interesting: Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. Few believed Schumer would be a supporter of the deal, but as the presumed next Democratic Senate Leader, the White House hoped he would sit out the battle until Congress returned in September. Instead, Schumer came out against the deal in early in August. Yet, perhaps because Schumer assured his colleagues he would not lobby them against the deal, the momentum for more Democrats to oppose the deal never materialized.

Many had expected at the outset of the review that the Senate would muster enough votes to pass the resolution of disapproval. But the way things have trended over the summer, the vote will be incredibly close and will likely come down to the wire next week.

However, even if enough Democrats cross lines to reach the 60-vote threshold to pass a resolution, the president still has his veto. If President Obama vetoes a resolution of disapproval, and opponents can’t convince two-thirds of both the House and Senate to override the veto, the deal moves forward.

That’s why Democrats in the House organized a letter earlier this year in support of the framework deal that was signed by 146 voting Representatives—enough to protect a veto. With that firewall in place in the House—and having been expanded by a number of additional Representatives who recently announced their support—and the Senate closing in on the 34 votes necessary to protect a veto, the deal appears safe.

But the question was never entirely about whether the President could win the battle to protect the deal, but how he would win it. The Iran deal may be a legacy piece for the president, but only if it survives past his time in office. If the deal limps across the finish line and is only protected solely by President Obama’s veto pen, the question of sustaining the deal becomes a question of who is holding that pen. Will the next President continue issuing sanctions waivers to implement the deal? Will he or she hold back the lawmakers and the interest groups calling for new sanctions or other provocative moves to nullify the accord?

Opponents of the deal are already building their case that, once the review is over, the battle to contain and eventually overturn the deal will continue. The opposition’s rallying cry early on was: “No deal is better than a bad deal.” Once the deal was in place, and the opposition was pressed on its alternative, the call to arms was to demand a “better deal.” Now with rejection of the current deal appearing less likely—and the consequences of such a rejection being better understood—the opposition is beginning to turn its attention to how lawmakers can “strengthen the deal.” Some of those measures are simple due diligence, but many of them—inserting new terms into the deal, re-imposing nuclear sanctions under new designations, provocative arms transfers to Israel—are thinly veiled efforts to sabotage the implementation of the agreement.

If the deal is protected only by a veto, the opposition will likely argue that the president has subverted the will of the American people by blocking their representatives’ disapproval, and this will provide them the basis for further efforts to re-litigate, revise, and unravel the agreement. In many respects, the way that President Obama wins will help determine whether the deal is truly secure or if it becomes the Republican’s next “Obamacare.” While the president’s signature first-term policy achievement was able to survive no less than fifty Congressional votes to repeal it over the past five years, a sensitive multilateral diplomatic agreement among deeply distrustful adversaries may not be so durable.

Ultimately, the deal will likely survive Congressional review. But how it survives, and whether the president wins decisively, will help determine what sort of follow-on effort we see from those who oppose it.

This piece originally appeared in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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