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Democratic senator's amendment would defund Tom Cotton's stationery for letters to Iran

Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

For about two weeks now, Democrats have been steamed about Sen. Tom Cotton's letter to the Iranian leadership, clearly meant to undermine President Obama's ongoing nuclear talks with Iran and perhaps his presidential authority over foreign policy. On Thursday, one Democratic senator needled Republicans back — by calling on Congress to stop paying for their stationery.

In a budget amendment reported by the Huffington Post's Zach Carter, Sen. Debbie Stabenow proposed a "deficit-neutral reserve fund relating to ending taxpayer funding of Congressional letters to the government of Iran." Stabenow wants the Congress to stop paying for Republican computers and stationery if they're going to use it for "interfering with the Executive Branch's role in international nuclear negotiations."

To be clear: she's not actually trying to take away Tom Cotton's laptop and letterhead. Proposing a "deficit-neutral reserve fund" is a thing people in Congress do when they want to talk about something irrelevant to the budget process. This is a petty — though pretty funny — stunt.

Still, it illustrates just how irritated Senate Democrats, and Stabenow in particular, are about the Cotton letter. "I never would have sent a letter to Saddam Hussein," Stabenow said during one Senate session, in a voice the New York Times describes as "shaking with rage."

Lasting Democratic anger over this matters. If Republicans want to pass new sanctions on Iran to torpedo Obama's negotiations with Tehran, as many do, they'll need Democratic votes in order to make that happen. Cotton's letter was meant in part as a threat to Iran to that this would happen, but it ended up polarizing the Iran issue, making it more about Democrat-versus-Republican, and making it harder for Democrats to side against their own president on the issue by supporting sanctions. Polarization is also bad for Obama if he ever wants the Senate to formally ratify a final agreement with Iran, though it's not clear that would be necessary.

Stabenow's amendment reflects what is, among many Democrats, lingering anger at Cotton and his Republican cosigners over a letter that they felt crossed the line. So while this amendment doesn't actually affect anything, it's symptomatic of the increasingly polarized politics surrounding Iran nuclear talks.