Congress unlikely to blow-up Iran nuclear agreement
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President Trump is expected to announce prior to the Oct. 15 deadline for recertification, that he will not recertify Iran’s compliance with nuclear agreement on grounds U.S. sanctions relief for Iran is contrary this country’s vital national security interests.

The action has been misrepresented in some quarters as a “decertification” of the agreement (a term that does not appear in the review act) and thus a first step in a fast-tracked U.S. withdrawal from it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The president will not be making a finding that Iran is in breach of the technical requirements of the agreement. The only agency recognized to make such a determination, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has found Iran to be in full compliance. What the president is doing is kicking the ball into Congress’s court for further review and possible action.

Much is made of the fact that if the president does not recertify, Congress only has 60-calendar days in which to act on a bill to reimpose the sanctions. While potentially true, there is no imperative in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 that Congress take any action during that review period.

The review act established two separate procedural tracks for Congress –one for considering the original nuclear agreement, and the other for considering so-called “snap back” legislation re-imposing the sanctions if Iran is found in breach of the agreement or the president asserts it is no longer in the US’ national security interest. In the first instance, Congress did not vote on a resolution disapproving the agreement. A motion to proceed to its consideration in the Senate was filibustered to death by Democrats; and the House didn’t even bring such a disapproval resolution to the floor. The agreement was consequently approved by default.

The review act places much tighter procedural requirements on considering “qualifying” snap back legislation. Committees must report within ten legislative days after such a bill is introduced, or they are discharged and the bill is eligible for floor consideration three days later. The bill is debatable for ten hours in the Senate (meaning no filibusters), and two hours in the House, with no intervening motions or amendments.

What is often overlooked is the review act’s conditions for “qualifying legislation.” It is defined in the statute as “only a bill of either House of Congress” that is titled, “A bill reinstating statutory sanctions imposed with respect to Iran,” followed by the specific language to be included in the bill. Moreover, qualifying legislation “may be introduced” during the review period by the majority or minority leaders of the House; or the majority or minority leaders of the Senate, or their designees. In other words, introduction is discretionary: none of the specified leaders is required to introduce a snap back bill; nor can any other member introduce a bill qualifying for expedited consideration.

However, if one of the leaders does accede to pressure to introduce the bill, that sets the fast track process in motion. There is just one choke point in either house, and that is the motion to proceed to the bill’s consideration. The motion is highly privileged, can be offered by any member, and is non-debatable. A House or Senate majority could defeat the motion and thereby pull the plug on the process before any debate takes place, let alone a vote on final passage.

By most reports, there is no enthusiasm in either party for re-imposing the sanctions on Iran, at least for now. Such an action could cause Iran to withdraw from the agreement and jump back on the nuclear weapons track. Even the most outspoken opponents of the original agreement, like Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonBipartisan group introduces retirement savings legislation in Senate Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war Hillicon Valley: DOJ appeals AT&T-Time Warner ruling | FBI agent testifies in heated hearing | Uproar after FCC changes rules on consumer complaints | Broadcom makes bid for another US company | Facebook under fire over conspiracy sites MORE (R-Ark.), are talking about using the review act’s snap back threat as leverage on Iran to renegotiate more favorable terms (such as extending the three sunset dates in the agreement). Quiet, behind-the-scenes talks are reportedly taking place between the Hill and White House on developing such a compromise approach.

The problem is that any legislation that varies one iota from the language specified in the review act would not qualify for the expedited procedures necessary to avoid obstructive tactics. Absent a broad-based, bipartisan compromise supported by 60 or more senators, that would put the Senate right back in the same filibuster minefield that blocked a direct vote on the nuclear agreement.

That scenario may be just fine with most parties involved: the president could blame Congress for not successfully forcing Iran to renegotiate the agreement; and Congress could breathe a sigh of relief that it had not pushed Iran out of the agreement and into the arms of North Korea and the nuclear bomb club.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. The views expressed are solely his own.