Congress Shies Away From Telling Obama What to Do on Iran

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) talks to reporters as he arrives at a closed door briefing June 4, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Officials from the Obama Administration were on the Hill to brief Senate members on the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. 
National Journal
Clara Ritger
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Clara Ritger
July 24, 2014, 4 p.m.

It’s not usu­ally hard to get law­makers to agree to tough lan­guage on Ir­an, par­tic­u­larly when AIPAC is on board.

But a let­ter out­lining the con­di­tions Ir­an must meet in or­der for Con­gress to be will­ing to provide sanc­tions re­lief ap­pears to have gone too far.

Demo­crat­ic Sen. Robert Men­en­dez and Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham were seek­ing sig­na­tures by Ju­ly 16 for the let­ter, backed by the Amer­ic­an Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, that was first dis­trib­uted Ju­ly 11, ac­cord­ing to Re­u­ters.

Two weeks later—and one week after the six-na­tion ne­go­ti­at­ing group an­nounced it had ex­ten­ded the nuc­le­ar talks with Ir­an to Nov. 24—the let­ter still has not been sent to Pres­id­ent Obama.

Some sen­at­ors are wary that af­fix­ing their sig­na­ture to the doc­u­ment would frus­trate the nuc­le­ar talks and would mean that they must con­demn any deal that does not meet all of the enu­mer­ated cri­ter­ia. Among those are a 20-year, in­trus­ive in­spec­tions re­gime that would al­low the mem­bers of the P5+1 to in­de­pend­ently veri­fy Ir­a­ni­an com­pli­ance and the re­quire­ment that Ir­an dis­close the full ex­tent of its nuc­le­ar pro­gram be­fore re­ceiv­ing sanc­tions re­lief from Con­gress. The let­ter also states that Con­gress ex­pects to phase in the sanc­tions re­lief be­cause it does not trust Ir­an to re­spect the terms of the deal.

The let­ter mir­rors one sent in March by Men­en­dez of New Jer­sey and Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina, along with 81 of their col­leagues, ex­cept that the Ju­ly let­ter ex­pli­citly states con­di­tions of a deal, with the threat that “Our will­ing­ness to con­sider le­gis­la­tion to provide sanc­tions re­lief will be based on res­ol­u­tion of all of these is­sues in the con­text of a fi­nal agree­ment with Ir­an.”

Gra­ham said that sign­ing his name means he would vote down a deal that did not meet the cri­ter­ia ex­pressed in the let­ter.

Earli­er this week, he es­tim­ated that they had gathered 20 sig­na­tures. Gra­ham said they aim to send it to the pres­id­ent when they hit 30, and that he be­lieved it could be sent Thursday.

“We’re not try­ing to get 100,” Gra­ham said. “This let­ter’s tough­er and we’re try­ing to get the com­mit­tees of primary jur­is­dic­tion to send a sig­nal to the White House.”

But lead­ers on both sides of the aisle in the rel­ev­ant com­mit­tees—Bank­ing, For­eign Re­la­tions, and Armed Ser­vices—re­fuse to sign on.

“I don’t want to do any­thing to un­der­mine the ne­go­ti­ations,” said Demo­crat­ic Sen. Carl Lev­in of Michigan, the chair of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “I think it’s a mis­take to put in stone what I would vote against un­less cer­tain cri­ter­ia were met.”

For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Bob Cork­er, a Ten­ness­ee Re­pub­lic­an, also has not signed the let­ter. Nor has Armed Ser­vices rank­ing mem­ber James In­hofe, an Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an, though he did send his own let­ter us­ing stronger lan­guage about the ne­go­ti­ations.

“There’s not a good deal be­cause if Ir­an agrees to something, they will break their word,” In­hofe said when asked what he would like to see in a Novem­ber deal. “It’s a waste of time.”

Bank­ing Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Mike Crapo, an Idaho Re­pub­lic­an who signed the March let­ter, signed onto the latest let­ter. But Bank­ing Chair­man Tim John­son, a Demo­crat from South Dakota, said he’s nev­er seen it.

Oth­er key Demo­crats are dis­tan­cing them­selves from the let­ter, in­clud­ing Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hamp­shire.

“I have not signed onto that let­ter,” said Shaheen, a mem­ber of the Armed Ser­vices and For­eign Re­la­tions com­mit­tees who did sign the March let­ter. “I think this let­ter is more pre­script­ive. I’m not go­ing to spec­u­late on what should be in the deal with Ir­an.”

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Is­land also signed on in March but hasn’t signed the Ju­ly let­ter. Reed serves on the Bank­ing and Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tees.

“I think the let­ter makes some good points,” Reed said, “but I think that any ne­go­ti­ation has to be a give and take and you have to al­low the ne­go­ti­at­ors to reach a po­s­i­tion and then eval­u­ate if it is ef­fect­ive.”

But even Re­pub­lic­ans who agreed to the March let­ter, such as Sen. Jeff Ses­sions of Alabama, thought the latest let­ter went too far. Ses­sions, a mem­ber of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, said he wanted to give the pres­id­ent the chance to present and ar­gue for his deal.

“I don’t want to gra­tu­it­ously con­demn or throw out sug­ges­tions as to what the right solu­tion should be,” Ses­sions said. “I think the pres­id­ent should ne­go­ti­ate something and I think he should run it by Con­gress.”

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