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 CruzDems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals Meet the billionaire donor behind Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Party chairs see reversal of fortune MORE (Texas) and Rand PaulRand PaulLibertarian ticket will get super-PAC support Overnight Energy: Trump outlines 'America First' energy plan in North Dakota Overnight Regulation: GOP slams new Obama education rules MORE (Ky.), and freshman Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonSenators to Obama: Make 'timely' call on Afghan troops levels Dems to GOP: Cancel Memorial Day break GOP senator: Reid's 'ramblings' are 'bitter, vulgar, incoherent' 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 CollinsGOP lawmaker: 'Republicans were wrong’ to block Garland Senate passes broad spending bill with .1B in Zika funds Senators unveil bill to overhaul apprenticeship programs MORE (R-Maine) told a group of reporters on Tuesday.
Sen. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeDem senators call for sanctions on Congo McCain urges sports leagues to return 'paid patriotism' money Overnight Tech: House GOP launches probe into phone, internet subsidies 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 CorkerRubio: 'Maybe' would run for Senate seat if 'good friend' wasn't McConnell-allied group: We'll back Rubio if he runs for reelection The Trail 2016: Interleague play 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 CoatsDems to GOP: Cancel Memorial Day break GOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' Overnight Defense: House panel unveils 5B defense spending bill MORE (Ind.), Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderSenate backs equal pay for female soccer players Overnight Healthcare: Momentum on mental health? | Zika bills head to conference | Only 10 ObamaCare co-ops left Overnight Regulation: GOP slams new Obama education rules MORE (Tenn.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiSenators float bipartisan wildfire bill Overnight Energy: Lawmakers closing in on chemical safety deal GOP chair pushes Obama official on Arctic drilling plan MORE (Alaska) and Thad CochranThad CochranSenate panel passes 4.5B defense bill Senate votes to block USDA catfish inspections GOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' 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 MenendezDems pressure Obama on vow to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees Lobbying World This week: GOP lawmakers reckon with Trump 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 KirkFunding boost for TSA sails through committee GOP senators propose sending ISIS fighters to Gitmo VA chief 'deeply' regrets if Disney comment offended vets 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 ClintonWeld wins Libertarian nomination for VP Sanders supporter challenges Wyo. delegate allocation Dems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals 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.