The GOP’s Iran Deal Point Man Is Holding His Fire

As he plans a series of hearings and briefings, Bob Corker isn’t opposing the nuclear agreement—yet.

Committee chairman Senator Bob Corker ,R-TN, speaks during a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill April 14, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee met to debate and vote on S.615, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
July 14, 2015, 11:41 a.m.

With­in an hour of Pres­id­ent Obama an­noun­cing a land­mark nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an, Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers and rank-and-file mem­bers in both cham­bers had re­leased a flurry of state­ments sig­nal­ing their op­pos­i­tion to the deal.

But one Re­pub­lic­an is hold­ing his fire—and he could be in­stru­ment­al in the suc­cess or fail­ure of the deal.

As he pre­pares to preside over a 60-day con­gres­sion­al re­view of the deal, Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Chair­man Bob Cork­er with­held judg­ment Tues­day, telling re­port­ers that he will wait un­til he’s read the full agree­ment, which clocks in at well over 100 pages, and has heard from both sides on the is­sue be­fore he sig­nals his sup­port or op­pos­i­tion.

More so than his fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress, Cork­er finds him­self in an in­ter­est­ing po­s­i­tion on the Ir­an deal. Should Cork­er side with the rest of his party in op­pos­ing the deal, he’ll need to con­vince 14 Demo­crats to come along in or­der to get the two-thirds ma­jor­ity needed to over­ride an Obama veto. And the reti­cence he has shown in speak­ing out be­fore listen­ing to both sides (much less read­ing the deal) could go a long way in main­tain­ing good faith with the minor­ity party, some of whose mem­bers are already skep­tic­al of the deal.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell told re­port­ers Tues­day that it will be a “real chal­lenge” for Obama to get the re­quis­ite votes to up­hold the veto. “The pres­id­ent is the most im­port­ant Demo­crat in the coun­try and he’s ob­vi­ously in fa­vor of this—he ne­go­ti­ated it—he’s go­ing to work hard to get the 34 votes that I know he knows he needs in or­der to sus­tain it,” Mc­Con­nell said. “So it’ll be a real chal­lenge for him be­cause I think it falls short in a lot of ways.”

Cork­er is already earn­ing praise from Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ben Cardin, the rank­ing mem­ber on the For­eign Re­la­tions pan­el, for hold­ing his fire. “I am en­cour­aged in what I’ve heard from Sen. Cork­er that we’re go­ing to have the op­por­tun­ity in our com­mit­tee for full de­lib­er­a­tions and we won’t rush to judg­ment,” Cardin said. “And I think that’s what we need to do.”

Cork­er’s re­sponse con­trasts sharply with that of Armed Ser­vices Chair­man John Mc­Cain, who prom­ised to hold hear­ings on the deal he is “totally op­posed to,” as he said Tues­day, in part be­cause it lifts the con­ven­tion­al arms em­bargo on Ir­an in five years. He be­lieves that Cork­er will come around and even­tu­ally an­nounce his op­pos­i­tion too.

“I think he’s look­ing at it right now but I think he’s go­ing to be very un­happy with it,” said Mc­Cain on Tues­day. “But he’s look­ing at the de­tails now. That’s his job.”

Cork­er lis­ted five is­sue areas he’d like to learn more about be­fore mak­ing a de­cision—many of which, he said, are con­cerns shared by oth­er mem­bers in both parties who are “on the bubble” about wheth­er they’ll sup­port the agree­ment. They are: wheth­er Ir­an will be re­quired to out­line its past mil­it­ary work in­volving nuc­le­ar weapons, how the deal ad­dresses the bal­list­ic mis­sile pro­gram, how ne­go­ti­at­ors plan to lift the arms em­bargo, wheth­er Ir­an has agreed to open up to “any­time, any­where” in­spec­tions of its nuc­le­ar pro­gram, and how the U.S. and its al­lies plan to re­strict Ir­an’s re­search and de­vel­op­ment.

“All those things, ob­vi­ously, I think are go­ing to be very im­port­ant to a lot of people on both sides of the aisle. I began with skep­ti­cism be­cause two years ago we began with a roguish coun­try with a boot on its neck and we went from dis­mant­ling their pro­gram to now man­aging their pro­lif­er­a­tion. And if the pub­lic com­ments that are be­ing made are true, we’re ac­tu­ally go­ing to al­low them to in­dus­tri­al­ize their nuc­le­ar pro­gram after year eight,” Cork­er said. “So again, I want to read the doc­u­ments care­fully. “¦ Look, there will be plenty of time for us to get a much bet­ter sense of how this ended up.”

Cork­er em­phas­ized that Con­gress’ 60 days for re­view will not be­gin un­til the ad­min­is­tra­tion has de­livered all of the deal-re­lated doc­u­ments to the Cap­it­ol, which could hap­pen as early as Fri­day.

Once they have all of the doc­u­ments, Cork­er said he will be­gin a thor­ough vet­ting pro­cess that will in­volve mul­tiple hear­ings and clas­si­fied brief­ings with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials and out­side ex­perts, which could be­gin as early as next week and last through early Septem­ber.

Asked if he will call Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry to testi­fy, Cork­er said he hoped to. “I would think that [the ad­min­is­tra­tion are] go­ing to be want­ing to get people over here to get their side,” Cork­er said. “So again, as quickly as we have time to go through and un­der­stand the de­tails, we can ask the ques­tions that need to be asked, we will sched­ule those hear­ings.”

Cork­er was re­luct­ant to cri­ti­cize fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans for jump­ing to “nay” be­fore read­ing the doc­u­ments and at­tend­ing hear­ings on the is­sue, not­ing that he has “sort of a dif­fer­ent role in this” than rank-and-file Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers. But he did stress that giv­en the com­plex­ity of the deal and the po­ten­tial con­sequences at hand, mem­bers should give the agree­ment a full hear­ing, par­tic­u­larly giv­en that much of the deal will re­main clas­si­fied and pro­tec­ted from pub­lic view.

“I think this is such a tech­nic­ally ori­ented agree­ment and the de­tails mat­ter that I would stress that people take their time. … And my guess is just be­cause of the way things are, they’ll try to put as much of it in the clas­si­fied doc­u­ments so you know they can’t be talked about pub­licly,” Cork­er said. “That’s just the nature of ad­min­is­tra­tions, I would guess, on both sides of the aisle, OK? But I think … go­ing through this agree­ment in de­tail is very, very im­port­ant to people.”

Cork­er also cri­ti­cized Obama for get­ting out ahead of Con­gress in threat­en­ing to veto a con­gres­sion­al vote of dis­ap­prov­al on the deal.

“I don’t know why he took that ap­proach. I think at the end of the day, re­gard­less of what he said in sort of throw­ing down the gaunt­let, I think people are go­ing to, you know, vote their con­science,” Cork­er said. “And I think if they feel like this agree­ment keeps Ir­an from get­ting a nuc­le­ar weapon and makes the world safer, they’ll sup­port it. I think if it doesn’t pre­vent that and in some cases even paves the way for them to get a nuc­le­ar weapon, they’ll op­pose it. I don’t think his com­ment will af­fect the [out­come].”

Alex Rogers contributed to this article.
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