Republican Senator Bob Corker has worked very hard to put together a bipartisan bill giving Congress oversight over the Iran nuclear deal. And now, some of the top members of his own party are threatening to blow the whole thing up.
Several senators, including presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, have proposed amendments that would infuriate the White House and Democrats, killing the bill's (called Corker-Cardin) bipartisan bona fides — and with them, almost any hope of passage.
This fight reflects a surprisingly sharp divide among leading Republican neoconservatives. Some see the bill as their smartest strategy for holding up an Iran deal they can't stand, while others think it doesn't go far enough toward torpedoing the agreement.
So a bill that some Iran deal skeptics see as their best chance to stop a bad agreement would die — because other deal skeptics thought it wasn't good enough.
What Corker-Cardin actually does — and why some deal skeptics back it
The congressional oversight bill, named Corker-Cardin after Corker and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, is a carefully crafted compromise. Republicans, and some Democrats, pushed to give Congress some kind of formal avenue for input on the Iran deal. The White House, by contrast, saw Congress's attempts to involve itself as a thinly veiled attempt to kill the Iran deal. The bill gives both sides a bit of what they want — by changing very little about the status quo.
Current law gives the president pretty wide discretion to suspend sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. Corker-Cardin would delay his ability to do that immediately, giving Congress between 30 and 82 days (depending on details) to review a White House report on the deal and vote on it.
Because any nuclear deal with Iran depends on giving the Iranians sanctions relief at one point, this effectively gives Congress the ability to hold up full implementation of any deal for at least a month.
But Corker-Cardin very explicitly does not require congressional approval for any deal. If Congress never votes on the Iran deal, then the White House will get the power to suspend sanctions back fairly quickly. Moreover, Obama could still veto any attempt to detonate the deal (as he could today). That means if Corker-Cardin passes, it isn't actually any easier for Republicans to vote down an Iran deal than it is without it.
"All the Corker Bill does is to freeze the President’s waiver authority," Harvard Law's Jack Goldsmith writes, "so that Congress can determine if it wants to (and has the votes to) remove the President’s waiver authority." It's not the White House's ideal legislation — they'd prefer no restrictions on sanctions waiver authority, as would most deal supporters — but they can live with it.
Why some neoconservatives are cool with Corker-Cardin
So if the bill doesn't actually do that much, why do Senate neoconservatives like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who are deeply skeptical of any deal, support it unamended? They think that by setting up a formal process for review of any deal, Congress will get more oversight on the Iran deal. That'll make it easier to marshal support for blocking a deal congressional Republicans find objectionable.
"Anybody who offers an amendment that will break this agreement [Corker-Cardin] apart," Graham said. "The beneficiary will be the Iranians."
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the influential pro-Israel lobby, is taking Graham and Corker's side. They see the bill as a first step: a means to get Congress's foot in the door so it can have more leverage with the White House to insist on what it sees as acceptable terms for an Iran deal.
"Our fundamental view is that this bill is the first step of a number of different steps on the Iran deal," an AIPAC official told Bloomberg. "The first and foremost priority is to make sure the bill gets passed to make sure Congress is guaranteed a chance to pass judgment on the deal."
How the election could kill Corker-Cardin
But a different group of neoconservatives, like Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton, want to attach amendments that would make Corker-Cardin unacceptable to the White House. Rubio and Cotton, for example, are pushing an amendment that would require Iran to recognize Israel as part of any deal (which Iran would never do, effectively killing a deal).
Why are they doing this? It's hard to say for sure, but there's both an ideological and a political case against supporting the unamended bill — which combine to create a serious threat to the Corker-Cardin compromise.
If you're dead-set on killing an Iran deal, there's a not-unreasonable case against Corker-Cardin. As we've seen, the bill doesn't make it easier for Congress to vote down any deal. It just gives it a little bit more time to debate and organize before sanctions relief comes into place.
That's why Bill Kristol, the influential editor-in-chief of the Weekly Standard, called Corker-Cardin a "toothless" bill. "There is no reason to think passage of this bill, as it now stands, significantly increases the chance of reversing a deal once it is agreed to," Kristol wrote. "There is every reason to think, if the bill passes without serious debate, that it will have the opposite effect — giving the illusion that Congress is doing something to stop or slow down a bad deal when it really is not."
It's hard to say whether senators like Rubio share Kristol's view of Corker-Cardin, but a certain extent it doesn't matter. Neoconservative donors and activists, like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, are really important players in Republican Party politics. There's a perception that taking the most prominent and hard-line "anti-Iran, pro-Israel" position is the best way to get these folks in your corner. Offering amendments to Corker-Cardin that, if passed, functionally kill an Iran deal isn't a bad way to woo their attentions.
That means 2016 candidates like Rubio and Ted Cruz have a very strong political incentive to try to attach amendments that would torpedo the bipartisan compromise. And it's not just presidential candidates: Republicans facing reelection fights in 2016, like Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, could also use support from this corner of the GOP. Johnson offered an amendment that would require any Iran deal to be approved by two-thirds of both houses of Congress before it passed — which the deal almost certainly couldn't attract.
Johnson's amendment failed, but it attracted support from more than 70 percent of Senate Republicans. There's always a chance, depending somewhat on procedural choices by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that one of these amendments ends up succeeding. For instance, Rubio and Cotton used a procedural maneuver Thursday afternoon to force a vote on their amendment about recognizing Israel. It's possible, if not likely, that this amendment could attract enough support to be adopted from legislators who don't want to be painted as anti-Israel.
"Come here and explain to the world why you are voting against a deal that requires Israel to have a right to exist," Rubio said, per Politico. "Don’t tell me that we can’t even vote on it, because then what you’re saying is, you want to be protected from taking a position on it."
If this works, then Corker-Cardin will probably die. Obama will veto it, and it'll be difficult to attract enough Democratic support to override his veto in order to effectively kill an Iran deal.
The most likely alternative to Corker-Cardin, then, is no formal oversight. And while neither camp of neoconservatives really wants that, the Obama administration would be just fine with it.