Can Republicans Have it All on Iran?

Republicans are committed to a freewheeling amendment fight, but it’s not without political risks.

Mitch McConnell is interviewed in his Senate Minority leader office in the capitol on Thursday, June 9, 2011.
National Journal
April 28, 2015, 4:01 p.m.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is proud that, un­der his rule, sen­at­ors have large amounts of lee­way to of­fer up amend­ments to le­gis­la­tion—and he loves need­ling his Demo­crat­ic pre­de­cessor, Harry Re­id, with that fact. The open-amend­ment pro­cess has been a “new ex­per­i­ence for a huge num­ber of sen­at­ors, but I think they have been able to sur­vive it,” Mc­Con­nell quipped Tues­day af­ter­noon.

Now, as the Sen­ate votes on le­gis­la­tion re­gard­ing Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram, Mc­Con­nell is about to ex­per­i­ence the flip side of the coin: He has giv­en his col­leagues the chance to of­fer amend­ments, but in so do­ing, he has risked one of them suc­cess­fully tag­ging the bill with a pois­on pill—a pro­vi­sion that would up­set the care­ful com­prom­ise that led the White House to re­cently drop its veto threat.

Re­pub­lic­an law­makers, in­clud­ing some of the party’s pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls, have filed amend­ments that, if suc­cess­ful, prob­ably would re­vive the White House’s op­pos­i­tion. “Ob­vi­ously, we want to keep the end goal in mind, and that’s we want to get this bill on the pres­id­ent’s desk,” said Sen. John Thune, a mem­ber of the GOP’s lead­er­ship team.

(RE­LATED: A Test for the Ir­an Deal — and the 2016 Con­tenders)

The first amend­ment vote on the bill was a bi­par­tis­an re­buke of a ma­jor change, which could sug­gest that a sub­stan­tial num­ber of Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t in the mood to add pro­vi­sions to the bill that could up­set the agree­ment.

Law­makers voted 39-57 against GOP Sen. Ron John­son’s amend­ment that would have re­quired that the hoped-for U.S.-Ir­an agree­ment to lim­it Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram be handled in the Sen­ate as a form­al treaty. Twelve Re­pub­lic­ans joined Demo­crats in op­pos­i­tion to the amend­ment.

But oth­er tough votes may await.

Con­tro­ver­sial amend­ments in­clude Sen. John Bar­rasso’s meas­ure that would re­quire White House cer­ti­fic­a­tion that Ir­an is not sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism against the U.S. and Sen. Marco Ru­bio’s amend­ment to re­quire that Ir­an re­cog­nize Is­rael’s right to ex­ist, among oth­ers.

(RE­LATED: How Obama Is Spin­ning Con­gress’s Ir­an Deal)

Asked if he is ur­ging GOP law­makers not to sup­port amend­ments that could be pois­on pills, Thune was am­bigu­ous. “We just have to be real­ist­ic about the amend­ment pro­cess, know that our guys are go­ing to want their op­por­tun­ity to of­fer amend­ments and get de­bates, but in the end we are go­ing to want a signed bill,” he said.

But Ari­zona Re­pub­lic­an Jeff Flake, a mem­ber of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, told Na­tion­al Journ­al that he’ll vote against amend­ments that could up­set the com­prom­ise—and pre­dicted that a num­ber of his GOP col­leagues would do the same.

“There is al­ways that risk, but it is a risk we said that we would take. We are go­ing to have an open amend­ment pro­cess,” Flake said in the Cap­it­ol. “But I think there are a suf­fi­cient num­ber of mem­bers who would want to see this pass.”

He pre­dicted that “a num­ber” of GOP col­leagues would take the same po­s­i­tion and vote against Re­pub­lic­an amend­ments like the one on Is­rael.

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