By JENNIFER STEINHAUER MAY 7, 2015 – New York Times – Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, on Thursday in the Capitol. The vote, 98 to 1, was a rare show of bipartisanship. Credit Zach Gibson/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — A bill that would give Congress a voice in any nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran passed the Senate overwhelmingly on Thursday, a rare bipartisan accord to curb executive authority in an era of expanding presidential power. The measure, which was approved 98 to 1, withstood months of tense negotiations, White House resistance, the federal indictment of one of its sponsors and an acrid partisan feud over a speech to Congress by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel just as an agreement was coming together. The lone vote against the bill, which would give Congress a say in the lifting of sanctions against Iran, was cast by Senator Tom Cotton, a freshman Republican of Arkansas who was sharply critical of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and labored last month to undermine the legislation. By empowering itself with a role in the delicate negotiations, Congress is making clear that it wants to be more assertive on foreign policy, traditionally the final frontier of a lame-duck president, though it remains divided about the use of military force against countries besieged by violent Muslim extremists.
“It’s important that the president be able to fully exercise his Article II powers but just as important for Congress to exercise its Article I powers,” said Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, who has pushed for increasing the role of Congress, referring to the separation of powers in the Constitution.The bill would require that the administration send the text of a final accord, along with classified material, to Congress as soon as it was completed. It also would halt any lifting of sanctions pending a 30-day congressional review and culminate in a possible vote to allow or forbid the lifting of congressionally imposed sanctions in exchange for the dismantling of much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Mr. Obama could still be able to get an Iran deal beyond the review period.
In many ways, Iran is a distinct foreign policy problem that unites lawmakers across party lines. While Congress has long been pushing the administration to be tougher on Iran — even pondering a bill to increase sanctions — it is divided on a move favored by Mr. Kaine to require congressional approval for military force against the Islamic State.
Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, in the Capitol subway in Washington on Tuesday.Congressional Memo: Tom Cotton’s Procedural Move Interrupts Smooth Sailing for Iran BillMAY 5, 2015
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, arrived at the Capitol last week.Marco Rubio’s Push to Amend Iran Measure Threatens a Fragile Balance in CongressAPRIL 29, 2015
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee faces a major test in the handling of an Iran bill that would give Congress a voice in nuclear negotiations.New Amendments Imperil Measure on Iran in CongressAPRIL 26, 2015
The House is expected to take up the Senate measure as early as next week. “I look forward to House passage of this bill to hold President Obama’s administration accountable,” House Speaker John A. Boehner said in a prepared statement.
The administration, which originally resisted any role for Congress, sounded notes of acquiescence Thursday. “We have been clear that the bill passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month was the kind of reasonable and acceptable compromise that the president would be willing to sign,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, adding, “We were pleased to see that what just overwhelmingly passed the Senate stayed true to that bipartisan compromise and we are hopeful that the House will similarly protect this compromise bill.”
Ultimately, it was less White House agitation than Republican infighting that prevented significant amendments to the bill, leaving some members deeply unhappy that they were unable to weigh in further on a matter that many said was the most significant of their careers. Republicans and Democrats had gingerly worked out a deal to allow votes on a few amendments. But some Republicans, angered that their amendments were going to be curtailed or rejected, employed procedural maneuvers that forced Mr. McConnell to take the bill to the floor without any significant amendments.
“I am deeply disappointed by the direction this debate has taken,” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a candidate for president, who had wanted to debate an amendment that would require Iran to recognize Israel. But in the end, a bipartisan accord that seemed nearly impossible in the cantankerous Congress just a few months ago came together by a formidable margin.
“Let me be clear,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said on the Senate floor as he encouraged members to approve the bill while noting the procedural fights that hobbled the process. “Our response to this should not be to give the American people no say at all,” adding, “make no mistake that this will not be the end of the story.”
The interim agreement reached between Iran and six world powers would dismantle much of Iran’s nuclear program, dispose of most of the nuclear material that could be used to make an atomic weapon, strictly limit Iran’s enrichment of uranium and set up an international inspection regime in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions.“I think the American people want the United States Senate and the House of the Representatives on their behalf to ensure that Iran is held accountable,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who shepherded the bill.The bill that passed the Senate Thursday, originally introduced in February by Mr. Corker and Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, enjoyed bipartisan support because its central concern was congressional prerogative. But the politics of the bill were immediately scrambled when Mr. Netanyahu gave a speech to Congress against the wishes of the White House and the majority of Democrats.
Soon after, Mr. Cotton wrote an open letter to the Iranian government warning of the shortcomings of the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration, and he got 46 of his Republican colleagues to sign on. Then, in another twist, Mr. Menendez was indicted on corruption charges and stepped down from the committee, leaving Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, who is far less hawkish, in charge of the Democrats’ role in the bill.
In the event that Congress would vote to disapprove a deal, Mr. Obama would most likely veto it. But the White House believes the president will retain enough support that Congress would not be able to override his veto. One hundred and fifty House Democrats have now signed a letter expressing support for the ongoing negotiations with Iran. “This legislation makes no judgment on the substance of an agreement with Iran, but gives Congress a chance to review any accord that would suspend congressional sanctions,” Mr. Cardin said. “The stakes are too high to allow partisan rancor to overtake national consensus that endorses congressional review of any final deal.”