White House on defense after Security Council vote on Iran

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The Obama administration was forced to play defense on Monday after lawmakers in both parties criticized its decision to let the United Nations — not Congress — have the first say on the Iran nuclear deal.

Republicans pounced on the decision following the 15-0 U.N. Security Council vote, arguing the White House was giving short shrift to congressional assent in a rush to build international support for the agreement.

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The White House appeared to hope that the U.N. vote would build pressure on Congress to back the deal, but the strategy risked backfiring, with some Democrats scolding the administration for the decision.

Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, joined panel Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) in a statement saying they were “disappointed” that the U.N. Security Council voted “before Congress was able to fully review and act on this agreement.”

“Regardless of this morning's outcome, Congress will continue to play its role,” they added.

Administration officials fought back, countering that lawmakers still have two months to make up its mind.

“No ability of the Congress has been impinged on,” Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryGOP senator calls for China to crack down on illegal opioid Obamas to live in home of former Clinton press secretary: report Even in defeat, Trump could harm the country irreparably MORE insisted on Monday. 

Kerry claimed that the administration was between a rock and a hard place. Either the White House risked getting flak at home, he said, or else Iran and the other negotiating nations would balk at the idea of holding their landmark international agreement hostage to one country’s legislature.

“Frankly, some of these other countries were quite resistant to the idea, as sovereign nations, that they were subject to the United States Congress,” Kerry said.

“When you’re negotiating with six other countries, it does require, obviously, a measure of sensitivity and multilateral cooperation that has to take into account other nations’ desires.”

Most of the criticism on Monday came from Republicans eager to criticize the administration’s handling of the Iranian issue.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, called the U.N. action “an affront to the American people” and accused the White House of “jamming this deal through” without proper congressional scrutiny. 

Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate GOP ties Iran sanctions fight to defense bill Analysis: Pa. senator missed most Budget Committee hearings Susana Martinez fires back at Trump MORE (R-Fla.), who is running for the White House next year, coined the phrase “capitulation Monday,” pointing to both the Iran vote and Cuba’s opening of a U.S. embassy in Washington.

“This is a bad start for a bad deal,” said Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerOvernight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return GOP senator: Reid's 'ramblings' are 'bitter, vulgar, incoherent' MORE (R-Ohio).

Monday morning’s U.N. vote came just hours after the State Department formally sent the Iran deal to Congress to be reviewed.

“Enabling such a consequential vote just 24 hours after submitting the agreement documents to Congress undermines our national security and violates the spirit of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act,” Boehner said, referring to the law giving Congress 60 days to review and decide whether or not to condemn the deal.

Congress can vote to block the deal in September, but Republicans would have to win over at least 13 Democrats in the Senate to override an presidential veto.

The administration has sought to win support from the public and Democrats in Congress for the deal, while Republicans are busily working to turn people away from the deal — and make any votes for Democrats difficult.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerBob CorkerSenate GOP ties Iran sanctions fight to defense bill Business groups push White House, Congress to improve US-India relationship The Trail 2016: Dems struggle for unity MORE (R-Tenn.) — who last week sent a letter along with the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Ben CardinBen CardinSenate GOP ties Iran sanctions fight to defense bill Lawmakers push to elevate Cyber Command in Senate defense bill Baltimore police officer cleared in Freddie Gray case MORE (Md.), asking President Obama to postpone the U.N. vote — also scolded Monday’s action.

“It is inappropriate to commit the United States to meet certain international obligations without even knowing if Congress and the American people approve or disapprove of the Iran agreement,” he said. “During the review period, members on both sides of the aisle will evaluate the agreement carefully, press the administration for answers and then vote their conscience.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking House Democrat, also has said that the United Nations vote should have been delayed.

Over the next eight days, top administration officials will make multiple visits to Capitol Hill to reassure lawmakers.

On Wednesday, Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and an unnamed “senior intelligence official” will give separate classified briefings for all members of the House and Senate.

Kerry, Lew and Moniz will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the following day, and then Kerry and Moniz will meet with House Democrats that afternoon.

The three secretaries will return to the House Foreign Affairs Committee next Tuesday.

“That’s an indication that the administration continues to be serious about the responsibility we have to make sure members of Congress have the information they need to consider this agreement over the course of the next 60 days,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

It was evident that the White House would try to use Monday’s Security Council endorsement to rally members of Congress — especially Democrats — to its side.  

In brief remarks from the Oval Office, Obama said that the vote “will send a clear message that the overwhelming number of countries who not only participated in the deal ... but who have observed what’s happened, recognize that this is by far our strongest approach to ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.”

“My working assumption is that Congress will pay attention to the broad-based consensus,” he added.

The Obama administration also appears eager to claim that a 90-day grace period between the U.N. Security Council vote on Monday and the time sanctions against Iran can begin to unravel leaves more than enough time for Congress to act.

That 90-day window “is specifically to allow Congress ample time to conduct their review of the agreement,” Earnest said.

“That does show on the part of the international community significant deference to the privileges of individual members of Congress.”