Caught Between Pledge and Poison Pills, McConnell May End Iran Debate

The majority leader could imperil the Iran bill if he gives Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio the votes they seek.

 Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell answers questions following the Senate policy luncheons at the U.S. Capitol April 21, 2015 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
May 3, 2015, 4:05 p.m.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell may be forced to end de­bate on the Ir­an bill early this week, shut­ting down the open amend­ment pro­cess that was a cent­ral prom­ise of his bid for con­trol of the cham­ber.

Sen. Tom Cot­ton’s sur­prise move on Thursday to force votes on his own amend­ment and one from Sen. Marco Ru­bio high­lights the per­ils of Mc­Con­nell’s com­mit­ment to an open amend­ment pro­cess. When Sen. Harry Re­id was lead­er, he of­ten “filled the tree” in Hill-speak, es­sen­tially pre­vent­ing mem­bers from fil­ing amend­ments without his ex­press writ­ten per­mis­sion. Mc­Con­nell’s stated pref­er­ence for a free-wheel­ing de­bate al­lows mem­bers to fol­low in Cot­ton’s foot­steps and force votes on their amend­ments.

Mc­Con­nell now has an un­pleas­ant choice: al­low the Sen­ate to move to votes on the Cot­ton and Ru­bio amend­ments, or shut down de­bate and can­cel votes on all of the re­main­ing 67 amend­ments to the Ir­an bill.

Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans an­ti­cip­ate that Mc­Con­nell will choose the lat­ter and will file clo­ture to pass the bill as is early this week. A Mc­Con­nell spokes­man said that was one op­tion the lead­er was con­sid­er­ing, but as of Fri­day, no fi­nal de­cision had been made.

(RE­LATED: Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s 2016 Jug­gling Act)

“Cot­ton may very well have altered next steps go­ing in­to Monday,” one Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide said in an email Fri­day. “The Cot­ton gam­bit may have … had the ef­fect of cut­ting off the amend­ment pro­cess that was ob­vi­ously un­der­way—67 or so from the Re­pub­lic­ans, 0 from the Demo­crats—all on a Re­pub­lic­an bill no less in a Re­pub­lic­an led Sen­ate!”

Cot­ton’s at­tempt to push his and Ru­bio’s amend­ments—re­quir­ing that the ad­min­is­tra­tion con­duct in­spec­tions and as­sure Con­gress that Ir­an is not pur­su­ing a nuc­le­ar-weapons pro­gram, and re­quir­ing that Ir­an re­cog­nize Is­rael, re­spect­ively—ap­pears to have blown up at­tempts by lead­er­ship both to main­tain an open amend­ment pro­cess and get the fi­nal bill through the Sen­ate.

Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Chair­man Bob Cork­er and rank­ing mem­ber Ben Cardin had been work­ing for weeks to thread that needle. Sev­er­al of the 69 Re­pub­lic­an amend­ments filed on the Ir­an bill, in­clud­ing those filed by Cot­ton and Ru­bio, have been termed “pois­on pill” meas­ures by Demo­crats and, if passed, would en­danger the un­der­ly­ing Ir­an meas­ure, which needs six Demo­crat­ic sup­port­ers in or­der to pass. Two of those amend­ments failed last week.

Sources said that Cork­er and Cardin, who are lead­ing the floor de­bate un­der the watch­ful eye of their lead­ers, were near­ing a deal to of­fer votes on at least some of those amend­ments, in­clud­ing some dif­fi­cult votes for Demo­crats. But the two lead­ers had not yet an­nounced which amend­ments would re­ceive votes, and both Cot­ton’s and Ru­bio’s were seen as un­likely to earn any floor time.

(RE­LATED: Can Re­pub­lic­ans Have it All on Ir­an?)

That led Cot­ton, on Thursday, 48 hours after the Sen­ate began vot­ing on Ir­an amend­ments, to try to by­pass the floor lead­ers and his own lead­er­ship without warn­ing lead­ers. Cot­ton served as an emis­sary for Ru­bio, who was presid­ing over the Sen­ate at the time.

“I, the sen­at­or from Flor­ida, and many, many oth­er sen­at­ors have sub­mit­ted mul­tiple amend­ments to ask for votes on these points. We have been con­sist­ently blocked from bring­ing up these amend­ments,” Cot­ton said Thursday.

A vis­ibly angry Cardin stood on the floor with Cork­er as Cot­ton made his move, warn­ing the Arkan­sas fresh­man that it could dis­band not only the amend­ment pro­cess, but the bill that they had worked so hard to cobble to­geth­er. Cork­er had just an­nounced on Tues­day that the bill had the sup­port of 67 sen­at­ors, a veto-proof ma­jor­ity, and now two of those sup­port­ers were po­ten­tially blow­ing it to bits.

“I have been work­ing with num­bers of sen­at­ors on some really con­tro­ver­sial votes that we were will­ing to make, as we already have. As a mat­ter of fact, the only two votes we have had thus far were con­sidered pois­on-pill votes,” Cork­er said. “My friend from Mary­land [Cardin] was will­ing to have more pois­on-pill votes—if you want to call them that—tough votes, but I sense the con­text of this may have just changed.”

(RE­LATED: Glim­mers of Hope on the Hill)

Call­ing them not “pois­on pills” but “vit­am­in pills,” Cot­ton shot back, echo­ing a state­ment Ru­bio made on the floor Wed­nes­day. “If you don’t want to vote, you should not have come to the Sen­ate. If you’re in the Sen­ate and you don’t want to vote, you should leave.”

Without those votes, Cot­ton and Ru­bio could pull their sup­port from the un­der­ly­ing bill. And should Mc­Con­nell end de­bate to en­sure the bill’s fi­nal pas­sage, many oth­ers could go with them. Sen. Ted Cruz, for ex­ample, has an amend­ment pending on the bill that would re­quire Con­gress to act­ively ap­prove or dis­ap­prove of the Ir­an deal (un­der the cur­rent bill, the deal is deemed ap­proved if Con­gress fails to act).

Cruz may have re­ceived a vote on that amend­ment un­der the Cardin-Cork­er deal, but that is now in jeop­ardy along with the 66 oth­er pending amend­ments.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this art­icle in­cor­rectly stated that end­ing the Ir­an de­bate would mark the first time in his ten­ure as Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er that Mitch Mc­Con­nell had shut down the open amend­ment pro­cess.

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