Noticeably absent among the 47 senators – all Republicans – who signed Monday’s explosive letter to the Iranian government was this consequential lawmaker: the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee.
Senator Corker, who was among seven Republicans who did not sign the open letter, told reporters on Tuesday that, as committee chairman, he had to “stay focused” on an outcome: passing a bipartisan bill that would ensure Congress has a say in whatever deal the administration may reach to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.
The bipartisan approach allows senators to fulfill their "appropriate role," Corker said. At the same time, senators working on the bill have taken care not to "handicap" the president, he said.
President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, which is cosponsored by the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey. A total of 10 Democrats and 1 independent back the legislation, and if all 54 Senate Republicans vote for it, Corker would need only two more Democrats for a veto-proof majority.
Republicans and Democrats who back the bill feel very strongly about it. Congress, they say, ought to weigh in on an agreement of such import – even if it is not a treaty, which would require Senate approval. Their say-so is required if the president agrees to permanently roll back sanctions that Congress itself passed, though he can suspend them for as long as two years through his executive authority.
“When the president touches congressional sanctions, Congress should have a say," said Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, on Tuesday. Senator Kaine is one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
Kaine told reporters that the controversial letter is hurting his ability to bring more Democrats on board – especially after last week’s controversial House speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced the deal that’s being negotiated, and after an initial move by the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, to rush the bill to the floor this week. Senator McConnell later reversed course, after Democrats threatened to block the move.
“A number of my colleagues who I hoped would sign on to the Corker-Menendez bill ... they’re like, ‘Well, I kind of agree on the substance, but isn’t the Senate showing that they can’t take this thing up in other than a rushed, partisan way?’ And you know, I’m trying to convince them, ‘Look at the substance,’ but it’s harder and harder when people are pulling stunts like this.”
The “stunt” that has so incensed Democrats – and concerned a few Republicans – is unlike anything that senators can remember, at least in their lifetimes. An open letter to the Iranian government, penned by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas and released on Monday, is a four-paragraph tutorial on the US Constitution. It points out that the deal being negotiated by the administration with Iran, if it lacks congressional approval, is a “mere executive agreement” that the next president can revoke with the stroke of a pen.
Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement that he could not recall another instance where a group of senators “wrote directly to advise another country – much less a longtime foreign adversary – that the president does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them.”
In America's history, presidents have entered into thousands of executive agreements with foreign powers, but mostly on noncontroversial issues. Iran's foreign minister dismissed the letter as a "propaganda" ploy.
California’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the letter’s only purpose was to destroy ongoing negotiations in their closing days.
The letter shows that “no matter what the president comes up with, [Republicans] are going to oppose it,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, the Senate minority whip, told the Monitor.
But some Republicans see it differently. The letter's real message, says signer Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois, is that “unless you can get bipartisan consensus, you can’t get sustainable policy in America.”
That point is seconded by Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona: “A lot of this can be traced as a manifestation of the mistrust that people on Capitol Hill have of the president and his executive action on things like immigration and the Affordable Care Act.”
Senator Flake said he did not sign the letter because he did not feel it was "appropriate," adding that negotiations are “hard enough without introducing this element.”
Corker says he will try to move beyond the “passion” of the past 10 days to build support for his bipartisan bill. Regrettably, he said, Mr. Obama threatened a veto before his committee even finished the bill.
Specifically, the legislation requires the president to release a deal’s text to Congress for review within five days of its agreement. It also prohibits the president from suspending congressional sanctions for 60 days while Congress reviews it, including holding hearings on it.
Passage of a joint resolution of approval – or no action at all – within the 60-day period would allow the president to move ahead with congressional sanctions relief. Disapproval – with the necessary votes to override a veto – would block the president from lifting congressional sanctions.
All other aspects of a deal would still be in place. Another bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senators Kirk and Menendez, would require new sanctions against Iran if it leaves the negotiations – or violates an agreement. That, too, is close to the 67 votes needed to overcome a presidential veto.