Congress Takes Up Iran-Oversight Fight

Lawmakers determined to claim a larger role in foreign policy will challenge President Barack Obama over his nuclear talks with Iran, taking up legislation this week that would give them the power to review—and potentially reject—a final deal.

The bill pits a Congress seeking a larger voice in foreign policy against a White House eager to make its mark on world affairs in its final term in office without congressional interference.

The measure will test lawmakers’ ability to coalesce around a unified position on a major foreign-policy issue. While members of both parties have agitated for more involvement in Mr. Obama’s agenda abroad, they have often found political peril in writing specific legislation and voting on it.


Unlike most other congressional battles Mr. Obama has faced, this time he is encountering significant bipartisan opposition: Democrats intent on avoiding what they view as mistakes made during more than a decade of war in the Middle East and Republicans concerned the president may concede too easily to Iran as negotiators try to reach a final deal by the end of June.


Earlier this month, six world powers including the U.S. reached an agreement with Iran on a framework that would reduce its nuclear capabilities in exchange for easing sanctions. Legislation by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), due for a committee vote Tuesday, would prevent Mr. Obama from easing sanctions on Iran for 60 days after a final deal is reached, during which time Congress could review and potentially vote on the agreement.


Mr. Obama opposes the bill, which administration officials say could undercut their negotiating posture. At the same time, the White House has suggested its opposition could soften if the bill were modified, and some Democrats are pushing for changes to make it more palatable to the president.


Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) last week introduced an amendment to strip out a provision requiring the president to certify that Iran isn’t directly involved in carrying out terrorist attacks against the U.S. and American citizens.


The measure from Mr. Coons, a member of Mr. Corker’s committee, is aimed at keeping the bill focused on Iran’s nuclear program.


Support for Mr. Corker’s legislation is deep enough among Senate Democrats that it not only could pass but might draw enough votes to override a presidential veto. Mr. Corker said he is close to having the 67 votes needed for a veto override, which would be the first of Mr. Obama’s presidency.


Meanwhile, the administration has been trying to sell lawmakers on its deal with Iran, calling Republicans and Democrats alike to persuade them not to take any action that could scuttle the agreement.


“I think people need to hold their fire, let us negotiate without interference and be able to complete the job over the course of the next 2½ months,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on CBS  on Sunday.


In deciding which amendments to the bill to consider, Mr. Corker will have to weigh whether to accept changes that would build the backing of Democrats without eroding support among Republicans for a watered-down measure.


Building such coalitions hasn’t been easy. A similar challenge has arisen over military actions targeting Islamic State fighters.


After months of urging the White House to submit a military authorization for congressional approval, lawmakers’ interest in the issue has sharply waned, partly because of partisan differences. Democrats are wary of an open-ended commitment and Republicans are reluctant to put any limitations on this or a future White House to fight the group.


On Iran, though, members of both parties say they want to acknowledge Congress’ role in deciding when congressional sanctions should be lifted.


“There’s a very strong desire by Congress—both people skeptical about the possibility of diplomacy and people with high hopes diplomacy can work—to be involved,” said Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat on the committee who backs Mr. Corker’s bill.


Many Republicans feel the legislation is needed to resist an executive encroachment of their authority. “What I think you’re seeing is a natural reaction to the president’s overreach in many areas and a desire for the Senate to reassert its traditional and constitutional role,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine).


Even some Democrats who haven’t endorsed the legislation have said its bipartisan momentum reflects a widespread desire for Congress to be more active in setting foreign policy, after years of ceding that to presidents.


“There is still an understandable hangover from a decade of congressional abdication when it comes to asserting our role in foreign policy,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), who said he was worried Mr. Corker’s bill would undercut U.S. negotiators. “I just disagree this is the moment and piece of legislation to assert that power.”


Lawmakers have split over whether the debate over congressional review of any final deal will help or hinder the discussions with Iran. The bill’s supporters say it bolsters U.S. negotiators’ ability to hold out for a deal that can pass muster with Congress. And given the near certainty that lawmakers will want to debate any final pact, the legislation establishes guidelines, such as a timeline for congressional review, said Mr. Kaine.


Meanwhile, critics say lawmakers could scuttle delicate talks and should wait until a final agreement has been reached before weighing in.


“I wish we were working more hand-in-glove with the administration. To the degree that we’re divided, that only helps Iran,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Source: Wall Street Journal