In the standoff with Congress over the Iranian nuclear deal, President Obama just blinked.
Faced with the prospect of a backlash from members of Obama’s own party on his signature foreign policy initiative, the White House on Monday said it’d be willing to sign a bill that will prevent the administration from lifting sanctions on Iran while Congress reviews whatever final deal is reached with Tehran over its nuclear program.
The bill was passed unanimously, 19-0, by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which declared Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are members.
Now the White House will have to submit to the very congressional scrutiny it had long sought to avoid. A former U.S. weapons negotiator told The Daily Beast that congressional inspection of the deal was a win for the deal’s critics and could potentially upset further haggling over the fine print.
The bill, once signed, would also give lawmakers access to the full text of the deal as well as any classified information underlying it. The administration faces a deadline of June 30 to finalize the deal with Iran and the other five parties to the talks.
Senator Bob Corker, the committee chairman, insisted that the White House had caved once it became clear that the bill was attracting enough support from Democrats that Congress could override a presidential veto. “I know they’ve relented because [of] what they believed to be the outcome here,” Corker said during a hearing Monday. Later, in an exchange with reporters, Corker accused the White House of “spinning” by suggesting that recent modifications to the bill were significant and somehow didn’t mean that the Congress would have a vote on sanctions relief.
“This is the same piece of legislation that they’ve always opposed and they are spinning you mightily,” Corker said. “It’s always been a vote on the sanctions.”
“This bill had growing bipartisan support,” Doug Stafford, the senior adviser to Paul, told The Daily Beast. Paul has been an advocate for congressional review. “It seems they may have recognized the reality that Congress was finally prepared to exercise their authority against executive overreach,” Stafford said. “Congress passed many of the sanctions by law. Only Congress should remove them.”
Rubio, who declared his candidacy in Miami on Monday, has said that if he’s elected, he’ll scrap the Iran deal entirely.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest had earlier framed the president’s change of heart as the product of a difficult negotiation.
“We’ve gone from a piece of legislation that the president would veto to … a compromise that the president would be willing to sign,” Earnest told reporters.
Earnest added that the bill had undergone “substantial revisions.” Yet it’s unclear why those changes were “substantial” enough to compel the White House to reverse course on its strategy of avoiding congressional review to the greatest possible extent.
One change to the bill now gives Congress 52 days to review the final agreement, instead of 60. But that still gives lawmakers plenty of time to have their say and potentially muck up the works. The White House would also now be freed from having to certify that Iran no longer supports terrorism. But the original legislation also didn’t expressly tie that certification to the lifting of sanctions.
Ben Cardin, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat and who’d served as a bridge between Congress and the White House, said the administration had responded to changes in the legislation that he’d pushed through.
“We have, if anything, reinforced the president’s ability to negotiate, and there will be no action taken by Congress on the substance of the agreements until we receive the agreements,” Cardin told reporters.
U.S. intelligence experts had earlier told The Daily Beast that they were pleasantly surprised by the initial agreement, which is paving the way to a final deal, that the U.S. and its partners struck with Iran in Switzerland this month. They noted that more details were put on paper than they’d expected. They also said they saw more concessions from Iran than they thought were possible given that the talks had appeared headed toward a stalemate.
“I think that [the negotiators] were able to specify enough detail in this agreement to justify the effort to continue another three months and try to complete a comprehensive agreement,” said Gary Samore, Obama’s former coordinator for arms control.
But in the days after the agreement was reached, it became clear that the Iranian version of what the parties had agreed to differed in substantial ways from what the Americans were putting out in Washington. Chiefly in dispute was whether sanctions would be lifted as soon as Iran and the other parties reached a final agreement—which is what Iran’s leaders are now insisting must happen—or if the Iranians would have to verify that they are complying with the specifics of a final deal before sanctions are eased in phases—as the Obama administration has said is actually what the parties agreed.
Amid the ambiguity, one thing was clear: The framework agreement reached in Switzerland was by no means a final deal, and there was still a lot of ground to cover before June 30. Now that Congress is going to have its turn, the nuclear drama looks to hang around well into the summer.