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 CruzWeek ahead in tech: Trump's antitrust pick heads before Senate Week ahead: Senate panel to vote on Trump's FDA pick Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road MORE (Texas) and Rand PaulRand PaulWe can put America first by preventing public health disasters Conservative activists want action from Trump McConnell: 'Big challenge' to pass ObamaCare repeal in Senate MORE (Ky.), and freshman Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonOvernight Cybersecurity: White House adviser ditches cyber panel over 'fake news' | Trump cyber order 'close' | GOP senator pushes for clean renewal of foreign intel law Overnight Tech: Dem wants to see FCC chief's net neutrality plans | New agency panel on telecom diversity | Trump calls NASA astronaut GOP senator pushes for clean reauthorization of foreign intel law 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 CollinsCollins: I'm not working with Freedom Caucus chairman on healthcare Mexico: Recent deportations 'a violation' of US immigration rules White House denies misleading public in aircraft carrier mix-up MORE (R-Maine) told a group of reporters on Tuesday.
Sen. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeTrump wall faces skepticism on border No Congress members along Mexico border support funding Trump's wall Obama-linked group launches ads targeting Republicans on immigration 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 CorkerGroups warn of rural health 'crisis' under ObamaCare repeal Ringing the alarm in Congress: 20 million lives at risk due to famine Senators want more efficient way to get food aid to Africa 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 CoatsNorth Korea briefing moved to White House 'Can you hear me now?' Trump team voices credible threat of force McCain says he hasn't met with Trump since inauguration MORE (Ind.), Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderGroups warn of rural health 'crisis' under ObamaCare repeal Trump’s Army pick faces tough confirmation fight Trump faces risky ObamaCare choice MORE (Tenn.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiTrump’s Army pick faces tough confirmation fight Republican Sen. Collins considering run for Maine governor in 2018 Alaska senators push bill to allow Arctic drilling MORE (Alaska) and Thad CochranThad CochranPicking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups Overnight Defense: FBI chief confirms Trump campaign, Russia probe | Senators push for Afghan visas | Problems persist at veterans' suicide hotline Senators ask to include visas for Afghans in spending bill 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 MenendezTaiwan deserves to participate in United Nations The way forward on the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump Corruption trial could roil NJ Senate race 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 KirkThe way forward on the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump ObamaCare repeal bill would defund Planned Parenthood Leaked ObamaCare bill would defund Planned Parenthood 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 ClintonObama to net 0K for Wall Street speech: report O'Reilly: Fans will be 'shaken' when truth comes out about Fox exit Overnight Cybersecurity: White House adviser ditches cyber panel over 'fake news' | Trump cyber order 'close' | GOP senator pushes for clean renewal of foreign intel law 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.