By Jordain Carney and Kristina Wong - 03/10/15 08:39 PM EDT
A letter from Senate Republicans to Iran’s leadership has divided the GOP and forced it to play defense, endangering the party’s chances of passing a new round of sanctions that would kill President Obama’s nuclear talks with Tehran.
The talks have long divided Democrats, and just last month it appeared nearly certain that Republicans would have enough votes in the Senate to override a presidential veto of new sanctions.
The White House on Tuesday seized on the letter for a second day, lashing out at the Republicans who sent it and calling it a “reckless” and “misguided” stunt.
The New York Daily News used the headline “Traitors” with pictures of McConnell, possible GOP presidential candidates Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzHot air balloon crash kills 16 in Texas 100 days to go in volatile race Voting Trump because of the Supreme Court isn't enough MORE (Texas) and Rand PaulRand PaulGreen party candidate: People have 'real questions' about vaccines What to watch for on Day 2 at the GOP convention Cyber squatters sitting on valuable VP web addresses MORE (Ky.), and freshman Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonThe Trail 2016: Her big night Reid: Trump 'may have' broken the law with Russia remarks Senator slams Reid for 'dangerous game' on Trump briefings MORE (R-Ark.), who spearheaded the letter.
The conservative Wall Street Journal’s editorial board also ripped the letter, calling it a “distraction” that let Obama change the subject.
GOP infighting over the letter — seven Republican senators did not sign it — burst into the open, with several Republicans criticizing their colleagues.
“It did not seem to me to be appropriate for us to be writing the ayatollah at this critical time during the negotiations, and frankly, I doubt very much that the ayatollah would be moved by an explanation of our constitutional system,” Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsTim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense The Trail 2016: Words matter Lobbyists bolting Trump convention early MORE (R-Maine) told a group of reporters on Tuesday.
Sen. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeVulnerable GOP senators praise Kaine GOP Sen. Flake offers Trump rare praise Booker denounces ‘lock her up' chants MORE (R-Ariz.) said the letter isn’t “helpful” or “productive.”
“These are tough enough negotiations as it stands,” he said. “And introducing this kind of letter, I didn’t think would be helpful.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerBob CorkerTrump starts considering Cabinet Trump's secret weapon is Ivanka Senate Dems introduce Iran sanctions extension MORE (R-Tenn.) said he did not think the letter “was something that would help get us to an outcome that we’re seeking.” He also said it would not have been constructive for him to sign it and expressed surprise that so many Republican senators did back it.
“I just didn’t even realize until this weekend that it had the kind of momentum that it had,” he said.
Sens. Dan CoatsDan CoatsMcAuliffe: I wouldn't want a 'caretaker' in Kaine's Senate seat Indiana GOP taps lieutenant governor to replace Pence GOP rallies to Trump's 'law and order' message after Baton Rouge MORE (Ind.), Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderGOP senators to donors: Stick with us regardless of Trump Overnight Healthcare: Mysterious new Zika case | Mental health bill in doubt | Teletraining to fight opioids Hopes dim for mental health deal MORE (Tenn.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiMcAuliffe: I wouldn't want a 'caretaker' in Kaine's Senate seat Big Oil makes a push for risky and reckless Arctic drilling GOP divided over 0M for climate fund MORE (Alaska) and Thad CochranThad CochranWhy a bill about catfish will show whether Ryan's serious about regulatory reform Capitol locked down for second time in a week This week: Congress eyes the exits in dash to recess MORE (Miss.) are the other four Republican senators who didn’t sign the letter.
Coats and Murkowski are up for reelection in 2016.
The Obama administration is seeking to reach a deal on a framework with Iran by the end of the month that would remove sanctions on that country in exchange for concessions meant to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
The U.S. is seeking commitments from Iran that would ensure vigorous inspections and limit the country’s ability to enrich uranium to the point where it would take one year for Iran to acquire enough nuclear fuel to develop a weapon if it broke an agreement.
Skeptics of Obama’s diplomacy with Iran exist in both parties, and a number of Democrats hailed a speech last week to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyah, who argued it would be impossible for Obama to negotiate a good deal with Iran that would keep Israel safe.
Netanyahu’s controversial address appeared to give Republicans some momentum, but Democrats in the Senate quickly balked at a plan by McConnell to hold a procedural vote this week on legislation sponsored by Corker and Sen. Robert MenendezRobert MenendezTim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense GMO labeling bill advances in the Senate over Dem objections Overnight Finance: Trump threatens NAFTA withdrawal | Senate poised for crucial Puerto Rico vote | Ryan calls for UK trade deal | Senate Dems block Zika funding deal MORE (D-N.J.) that would require Congress to review a proposed deal with Iran before it could be approved.
The Corker-Menendez bill itself is seen as a softer approach to a bill from Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkDem Senate hopefuls seek boost from convention Former employees reject settlement in lawsuit against Duckworth Duckworth wears ‘You can pee next to me’ shirt MORE (R-Ill.) and Menendez that would restore and impose new sanctions if no deal is reached, or if Iran violates the deal. The sanctions bill appeared to have a veto-proof majority earlier this year.
Now, it’s not clear it would get 60 votes.
Democrats went to the Senate floor on Monday to denounce the Cotton letter, which suggested that any deal with Iran could be undone after Obama leaves the White House in 2017.
Vice President Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, said the letter “threatens to undermine” the president’s ability to negotiate with other countries.
“The senators’ letter, in the guise of a constitutional lesson, ignores two centuries of precedent and threatens to undermine the ability of any future American President, whether Democrat or Republican, to negotiate with other nations on behalf of the United States,” he said in a statement Monday night.
Even former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump: Muslim soldier was a hero but his father 'has no right' to criticize me Interim DNC chair to impose 'tough standards' after email leaks Mark Cuban campaigns for Clinton in hometown of Pittsburgh MORE, speaking at a New York press conference about the controversy over her private email account, sought to hammer the GOP. She said the letter was “out of step with the best traditions of American leadership.”
In a statement, Coats pointed to the need to end the partisanship in order for Republicans to win the policy battle.
“Though we may disagree on tactics, we all recognize that bipartisan support is necessary to override President Obama’s promised veto,” he said in a statement.