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 CruzHaley slams United Nations, echoing Trump Graham, Cruz proposal to defund the U.N. is misguided Right renews push for term limits as Trump takes power MORE (Texas) and Rand PaulRand PaulPaul, Lee call on Trump to work with Congress on foreign policy GOP senators introducing ObamaCare replacement Monday Sanders, Dems defend ObamaCare at Michigan rally MORE (Ky.), and freshman Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonOvernight Defense: Obama commutes Manning's sentence | Boeing sees 'progress' on Air Force One costs | McCain's 0B defense budget Cotton on Manning: Obama commuted ‘a traitor’ Obama commutes Chelsea Manning's sentence 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 rep faces testy crowd at constituent meeting over ObamaCare DeVos vows to be advocate for 'great' public schools GOP senators introducing ObamaCare replacement Monday MORE (R-Maine) told a group of reporters on Tuesday.
Sen. Jeff FlakeJeff Flake9 GOP senators Trump must watch out for The road ahead for America’s highways Graham, Durbin reintroduce bill to protect 'Dreamers' 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 CorkerPaul, Lee call on Trump to work with Congress on foreign policy Booker to vote against Tillerson Schumer puts GOP on notice over ObamaCare repeal 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 CoatsFive things to watch in round two of Trump confirmation fights Gingrich: Trump should tell new spy chief to 'thoroughly overhaul' intelligence community Government to begin calling Indiana residents Hoosiers MORE (Ind.), Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderLive coverage: Tom Price's confirmation hearing DeVos vows to be advocate for 'great' public schools Overnight Healthcare: CBO projects 18M could lose coverage after ObamaCare repeal MORE (Tenn.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiTrump education pick to face Warren, Sanders Schumer puts GOP on notice over ObamaCare repeal 9 GOP senators Trump must watch out for MORE (Alaska) and Thad CochranThad CochranGOP senators voice misgivings about short-term spending bill Trump's wrong to pick Bannon or Sessions for anything Bottom Line 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 MenendezCarson likely to roll back housing equality rule Live coverage: Tillerson's hearing for State Booker to join Foreign Relations Committee 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 KirkGOP senator: Don't link Planned Parenthood to ObamaCare repeal Republicans add three to Banking Committee Juan Williams: McConnell won big by blocking Obama 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 ClintonBe warned, GOP — There are no 'permanent majorities' in American politics High-end designer releases Bernie Sanders-inspired fashion collection Super PAC relaunches with top Clinton, Sanders operatives 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.