In Washington, the nuclear deal with Iran is politically unstoppable

US secretary of state John Kerry, center, flanked by senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, left, and energy secretary Ernest Moniz, right, speaks to reporters following their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sep. 9, 2015, on the Iran nuclear deal.
US secretary of state John Kerry, center, flanked by senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, left, and energy secretary Ernest Moniz, right, speaks to reporters following their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sep. 9, 2015, on the Iran nuclear deal.
Image: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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US president Barack Obama doesn’t need to worry: for all intents and purposes, his signature foreign policy accomplishment—a nuclear deal with Iran—will be safe from a congressional override vote.

The 159-page “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” that the president and his administration negotiated with Iran and the P5+1 (UN Security Council members plus Germany) was an endeavor that required an immense amount of political will and diplomatic acumen. US secretary of state John Kerry, secretary of energy Ernest Moniz, and undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman pulled it off after nearly two years of intensive talks with Iran’s delegation, led by one of the best negotiators in the world—Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Even after the agreement was clinched in July, the overarching concern for the administration, and for president Obama personally, was that all of this hard work would die in the halls of Congress. The combination of an anti-deal campaign from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), tens of millions of dollars spent on television and newspaper ads poking holes in every aspect of the nuclear accord, and the unanimous objection of congressional Republicans would be too much for the White House to handle. The magic number for the administration was 34, meaning that the president needed to enlist the support of 34 Senate Democrats in order to sustain a veto of a resolution of disapproval.

If the White House got lucky, they would be able to cobble together 146 Democrats in the House to back them up, if Senate Democrats started deserting in large numbers.

You would have been unlikely to find anyone in Washington when the agreement was first announced that would have guaranteed 34 Senate votes on president Obama’s side. So it’s quite a feat that, about a month and a half after the JCPOA was released to the public and less than a week before Congress resumes its business, the White House has won the vote battle. With senators Chris Coons, Bob Casey, Heidi Heitkamp, Mark Warner, Cory Booker, and Michael Bennett all expressing their support for the agreement, the administration is well above the 34-vote threshold that it needs to stave off a GOP-authored resolution of disapproval.

President Obama’s lobbying effort in the halls of Congress has been so effective, in fact, that Senate Democrats like Harry Reid and Dick Durban are openly talking about getting to the 41-vote threshold that would kill GOP attempts to even send a disapproval resolution to the president’s desk. With more than a week to go before the Senate formally votes on the accord, the administration only needs to grab three more votes to make that a reality.

Predictably, GOP senators are not at all happy with this kind of talk.

Cue Republican senator Tom Cotton, the most vocal opponent of the Iran deal and the only senator who voted against the bipartisan Iran Agreement Review Act that established the legislative branch’s oversight role:

“First, the president did an end-run around the Constitution by refusing to submit the Iran deal as a treaty requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate for approval. Now Harry Reid wants to deny the American people a voice entirely by blocking an up-or-down vote on this terrible deal. If Harry Reid has his way, Congress won’t even get the little oversight we were provided in Corker-Cardin. He is obstructing because he is scared. He knows that a majority of Americans and senators oppose this dangerous deal, and that its only chance for survival is if he and the president ram it down the throats of the American people. The Congress and the president should speak with one voice when it comes to dealing with the Iranians, but it seems that Harry Reid believes that only his and the president’s voices matter.”

Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is just as upset about the prospect. Indeed, he’s shocked that Harry Reid would even consider mounting a filibuster. “Are you kidding me?” Corker asked Politico in a short interview. “Is that where they really want to be? Do they really want to vote to block consideration of … probably the biggest foreign policy endeavor? Do they want to be in a place where they voted to keep from going to the substance [of the Iran debate]?”

Leaving aside for the moment the hypocritical exasperation that Corker exhibits (Republicans and Democrats have all used the filibuster when they were in the minority, and Corker himself contributed to blocking bipartisan bills on a number of occasions), his argument is indicative of how desperate opponents of the Iran deal have become.

There was a critical assumption within the anti-deal crowd—that as the JCPOA was poured over and its weaknesses exposed, support for the administration’s position would falter. That clearly hasn’t turned out to be the case; when Democrats in red states like Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, and Heidi Heitkamp are not defecting, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that the opponents have lost all momentum. Having lost the battle, GOP lawmakers are turning their guns on a completely different subject: a Senate procedure that they themselves have used when they were the minority party.

For one reason or another, no reporter has asked Corker this critical question: If you sincerely believe that it’s the height of partisanship and irresponsibility to filibuster an important foreign policy debate, why did you not work to strip this possibility from the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act? Why codify normal Senate procedure in the legislation—procedure that allows for the possibility of the minority party to block further consideration of the bill? As the lead author of the bill, these are questions that Corker should answer and could have dispensed with when he wrote the legislation.

Republicans are trying to change the subject from the merits of the Iran agreement to the details of how the Senate works. Yet, even on this score, they are going to lose the argument. If Republican senators don’t like the possibility of the Democrats blocking a resolution of disapproval, they should have taken that power away. They didn’t.