Divided on Iran, Democrats Unite Against GOP Letter

Even the minority party’s hawks thought writing to Tehran was the wrong move.

US President Barack Obama clasps hands with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (2nd R), D-NV, while meeting with members of Congress on foreign policy on July 31, 2014 in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC. From left: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-NJ, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker, R-TN. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Rachel Roubein
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Rachel Roubein
March 9, 2015, 4:51 p.m.

When it comes to Ir­an, the Sen­ate has its Re­pub­lic­an hawks and its Demo­crat­ic hawks. But only the former thought it would be a good idea to send a let­ter to Tehran warn­ing it against cut­ting a nuc­le­ar deal with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, and now those in the lat­ter camp aren’t happy about it.

A total of 47 Re­pub­lic­ans signed a let­ter to Ir­an’s lead­ers, warn­ing that any deal with Pres­id­ent Obama might not out­last his pres­id­ency. On an is­sue that di­vides them, Demo­crats ap­pear united in their re­sponse—in­clud­ing some mem­bers who have been will­ing to break pub­licly with the White House.

Sen. Robert Men­en­dez, the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee’s rank­ing mem­ber, said the Ir­a­ni­ans don’t need a let­ter “to be told that which they know about our gov­ern­ment, that this gov­ern­ment, mean­ing the Con­gress, will have a say at some point.”

“As far as I am con­cerned, you saw that it was a par­tis­an let­ter, [that] tells you everything about it,” said Men­en­dez. (The New Jer­sey Demo­crat re­portedly faces fed­er­al cor­rup­tion charges, and some Re­pub­lic­ans—in­clud­ing Sen. Ted Cruz—have even sug­ges­ted that Men­en­dez is be­ing pun­ished by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for his po­s­i­tion on Ir­an.)

(RE­LATED: For Demo­crats on Ir­an, Tim­ing is Everything)

Men­en­dez and Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Cork­er have put forth a bill that would re­quire a con­gres­sion­al re­view of any nuc­le­ar agree­ment with Ir­an. The Re­pub­lic­ans’ let­ter doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily make it harder to sup­port this bill, said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. “I think the tim­ing on that is the crit­ic­al part—when we take it up,” said Cardin, a Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee mem­ber.

Fresh­man Sen. Tom Cot­ton, R-Ark., led the charge on craft­ing the let­ter, which was signed by all but sev­en of the up­per cham­ber’s Re­pub­lic­ans. The let­ter, ori­gin­ally re­por­ted by Bloomberg, says Obama will “leave of­fice in Janu­ary 2017, while most of us will re­main in of­fice well bey­ond then—per­haps dec­ades,” and if Con­gress doesn’t ap­prove the agree­ment, the next pres­id­ent could “re­voke such an ex­ec­ut­ive agree­ment with the stroke of a pen.”

The frus­tra­tions over the let­ter come a week after some Demo­crats, in­clud­ing at least eight sen­at­ors, boy­cot­ted a Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu’s speech to a joint ses­sion of Con­gress that urged the United States against strik­ing a nuc­le­ar weapons deal with Ir­an.

(RE­LATED: Net­an­yahu De­livered Just What Obama Feared)

Cork­er said his fo­cus is on get­ting the bill through the cham­ber, and his sig­na­ture was no­tice­ably ab­sent from the let­ter sent to Ir­a­ni­an lead­ers. Cot­ton called him over the week­end, Cork­er said, to let him know the let­ter was go­ing out.

“We had a very civil con­ver­sa­tion, and I ap­pre­ci­ated the fact that he called be­fore he sent it out,” Cork­er told re­port­ers Monday. “He un­der­stands that my role in this is a little dif­fer­ent and unique and re­spec­ted it.”

Still, some Demo­crats say the let­ter politi­cizes for­eign re­la­tions and makes com­prom­ise among the two parties tough­er. Crit­ics on Monday in­cluded Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and Minor­ity Whip Dick Durbin. The let­ter is “un­pre­ced­en­ted,” “rep­re­hens­ible,” and plays polit­ics with for­eign re­la­tions, Demo­crats say, and Re­pub­lic­ans are try­ing to cut the legs out from Obama as he at­tempts to forge a deal with Ir­an over the coun­try’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram.

(RE­LATED: Harry Re­id Goes Off on Re­pub­lic­ans Over Ir­an Let­ter)

“I can’t even ima­gine the up­roar if Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors [had been] writ­ing to Sad­dam Hus­sein in the lead up to the Ir­aq War,” Sen. Chris Murphy of Con­necti­c­ut told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “So my hope is that this gal­van­izes Demo­crats be­hind an ef­fort to sup­port ne­go­ti­ations, be­cause Re­pub­lic­ans have made it crys­tal clear that this has noth­ing to do with the mer­its of the deal. This has everything to do with un­der­min­ing the pres­id­ent.”

That doesn’t mean law­makers won’t sup­port sanc­tions on Ir­an if the ad­min­is­tra­tion fails to reach an agree­ment.

“If the ne­go­ti­ations fall apart, I sup­port im­pos­ing new sanc­tions,” Murphy said, “and the only dif­fer­ence with­in the Con­gress is wheth­er you pass le­gis­la­tion now or you pass le­gis­la­tion after the ne­go­ti­ations fall apart, so I think we’re all pretty uni­fied in the fact that if ne­go­ti­ations don’t work then we’re go­ing to move for­ward on a new round of sanc­tions.”

“I don’t think there’s any ques­tion,” Cardin said, “that if there’s no agree­ment, there’s go­ing to be tough­er sanc­tions. I don’t think there’s any ques­tions about that, and the ad­min­is­tra­tion will sup­port us on it.”

Ben Geman contributed to this article.
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