Iran nuclear deal: Will Congress have a say?

The Senate may not be ratifying a treaty, but many lawmakers in both parties feel strongly that Congress should have a say on any final agreement with Iran.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee pauses as he outlines his bipartisan bill requiring congressional review of any comprehensive nuclear agreement that President Obama reaches with Iran, at the Capitol in Washington in March.

When President Obama presented the framework for an Iran nuclear agreement to reporters in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday, he issued a very direct warning to Congress not to scuttle the deal.

“If Congress kills this deal, not based on expert analysis, and without offering any reasonable alternative, then it's the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy,” he said. “International unity will collapse and the path to conflict will widen.”

What exactly is Congress’s role in this?

Does the Senate have to ratify a final deal?

What the United States and other world powers have negotiated with Iran is a framework for an agreement, and not the final text, which faces a deadline of June 30. But because any final deal would be an “agreement” and not a “treaty,” it would not need ratification by the Senate. Ratification requires two-thirds approval by senators.

So Congress has no say?

The Senate may not be ratifying a treaty, but many lawmakers in both parties and in both chambers feel strongly that Congress should have a say. An agreement of such import is too consequential to proceed without congressional input, they argue. That’s why senators have crafted bipartisan bills related to Iran negotiations.

Lawmakers also point out that the president is negotiating away sanctions that Congress itself approved, so Congress must approve their removal. That’s true, but President Obama can “suspend” congressional sanctions for two years before needing congressional approval to lift them. The administration hopes that an Iran deal will have proven its worth by then.

What is in the Senate bills?

Two main bills, both with bipartisan support, have been waiting in the wings. One, co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois and Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, would require new sanctions against Iran if it leaves the negotiations – or violates an agreement.

The other, co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee and Senator Menendez, would prohibit the president from suspending congressional sanctions on Iran for 60 days while Congress reviews a final agreement.

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. 

The president has vowed to veto both bills, saying they would scuttle negotiations. But both are close to achieving veto-proof majorities of 67 votes.

How have members of Congress reacted to the framework?

Not surprisingly, reaction has been mixed.

Predictable hawks have squawked. Sen. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas, who last month penned a warning letter to the Iranian government signed by 47 Republicans, said there was no deal or framework, only “a list of dangerous concessions.” Senator Kirk compared it to the British appeasement of Hitler.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke before Congress at the invitation of GOP leaders last month, told Obama that deal would “threaten the survival of Israel,” and that view is bound to influence members.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio gave a nuanced message, saying that his “longtime concerns” remain and that Congress will “continue to press” the administration for details, but there was nothing about killing a deal.

Several key Democrats on Thursday applauded the deal, while others, such as Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, went even further, urging their colleagues to hold off on any action that might derail the talks as a final agreement is hammered out.

Taking a more skeptical view, Rep. Brad Sherman (D) of California, a senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CQ Roll Call that he wants Iran to sign the five-page fact sheet describing the deal that was put out by the White House.

What happens next?

The administration has already begun calling members and it will hold classified briefings with Congress on the details and path forward. On April 14, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to proceed with its plans to formally draft the Corker-Menendez bill requiring a congressional review of any final deal. The future of the two Iran bills depends on Democratic backing in the Senate.

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