A Test for the Iran Deal—and the 2016 Contenders

Marco Rubio and others can use the open amendment process to make a push on hot-button issues.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during a National Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon May 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. Sen. Rubio delivered a policy speech on social security and answered questions during the luncheon. 
National Journal
April 26, 2015, 4:05 p.m.

Mitch Mc­Con­nell prom­ised that when he be­came ma­jor­ity lead­er, the Sen­ate would have an open amend­ment pro­cess. That’s ex­actly what the cham­ber will get this week on a high-stakes Ir­an bill—a scary test for an already hard-fought deal between the ad­min­is­tra­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans, and Demo­crats.

Sen­at­ors from both parties—in­clud­ing the quar­tet eye­ing pres­id­en­tial bids—will have the chance to push for tricky votes on Is­rael, ter­ror­ism, and Amer­ic­an de­tain­ees abroad. Yet al­low­ing that gaunt­let is also the best way for Mc­Con­nell to en­sure that whenev­er the Sen­ate takes a fi­nal vote to re­quire con­gres­sion­al re­view of any nuc­le­ar agree­ment with Ir­an, the mes­sage will come through loud and clear: Whatever deal the White House strikes, Con­gress will be watch­ing closely.

The Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to spend most of the week de­bat­ing the Ir­an Nuc­le­ar Agree­ment Re­view Act, which re­ceived a un­an­im­ous vote in the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee earli­er this month. It would re­quire the ad­min­is­tra­tion to turn over the text of any fin­ished agree­ment to Con­gress for a 30-day re­view. Dur­ing that time, which could be ex­ten­ded, the White House would be pro­hib­ited from lift­ing sanc­tions.

If the fi­nal Ir­an nuc­le­ar agree­ment doesn’t meet cer­tain stand­ards, these elec­ted of­fi­cials could make life very dif­fi­cult for those who want them to sign off on it. The White House, which grudgingly agreed to ac­cept the re­view pro­cess, is well aware of this.

But first, the Sen­ate has to get there. And with the abil­ity of any sen­at­or to of­fer any amend­ment for a vote, the deal could un­ravel.

“Any amend­ment, I worry about. There’s noth­ing spe­cif­ic,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, the rank­ing mem­ber on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee.

So far, Demo­crats haven’t offered any amend­ments, hop­ing to re­tain the deal as writ­ten. Sen. Robert Men­en­dez, a key play­er in craft­ing the le­gis­la­tion, said he is afraid of “up­set­ting the bal­ance” of the cur­rent le­gis­la­tion. He hopes sen­at­ors will “stay as true as pos­sible” to its cur­rent lan­guage.

Among the amend­ments already filed are sev­er­al from Sen. Marco Ru­bio, who held his fire in com­mit­tee on an amend­ment to re­quire that Ir­an pub­licly re­cog­nize Is­rael as a Jew­ish state. That amend­ment, which Ru­bio has filed again on the floor with Sens. Mark Kirk and Pat Toomey, is among the “pois­on pills” that would kill the nuc­le­ar-re­view act.

Ru­bio and Sen. James Risch both have amend­ments to re­quire that Ir­an re­lease de­tained Amer­ic­ans, which will spark a con­ver­sa­tion about how much the United States can trust a coun­try not to build nuc­le­ar weapons when it im­pris­ons Amer­ic­ans. Sen. John Bar­rasso has filed an amend­ment to re­quire that Ir­an is not dir­ectly sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism.

Cardin and For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Cork­er both have said that the con­ver­sa­tions about ter­ror­ism and de­tain­ees are im­port­ant is­sues to dis­cuss, but they are not rel­ev­ant to the nuc­le­ar talks. They say any broad­en­ing of the re­view pro­cess bey­ond spe­cif­ics of a nuc­le­ar deal will weak­en Con­gress’s mes­sage.

Tell that to the folks run­ning for pres­id­ent, who are skep­tic­al that Ir­an will fol­low through on any of its prom­ises and would like to ad­opt a much harder line. And they have voters to an­swer to. Sen. Rand Paul is still de­cid­ing wheth­er he wants to of­fer any amend­ments, ac­cord­ing to an aide. Ru­bio has filed his amend­ments, but if he fol­lows his be­ha­vi­or in com­mit­tee, he may stop be­fore re­quir­ing a vote. Sen. Ted Cruz has filed one amend­ment to al­low Con­gress to re­in­state Ir­an sanc­tions un­der an ex­ped­ited vot­ing pro­ced­ure. All in all, it could get messy.

Sen. John Mc­Cain says he’s not wor­ried, really. “Every­body knows what the para­met­ers are of the deal,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “So let’s see what hap­pens. If you said there were no amend­ments al­lowed, then there would be a re­volt. So you gotta roll the dice. I love rolling the dice.”

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