Hurdles grow for administration in selling Iran nuclear deal

Francis Rivera

The White House on Wednesday acknowledged the existence of so-called “side” agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency that have sparked new arguments against the Iran nuclear deal.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Wednesday rejected GOP assertions that there are “secret” side deals to the Iran pact, but pledged that lawmakers would be briefed on their contents in classified briefings.

“We’re satisfied with them and we will share the contents of those briefings in full in a classified session with the Congress,” she told reporters. “So there's nothing in that regard that we know that they won't know.”

But that will not be enough to satisfy Republicans in Congress, who are demanding to see the full text of the side agreements. 

"Failure to produce these two side agreements leaves Congress blind on critical information regarding Iran’s potential path to being a nuclear power and will have detrimental consequences for the ability of members to assess the [deal]," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellPelosi urges end to Pentagon's clawback of soldier overpayments Coffman’s stance on climate change disingenuous, irresponsible Bill Murray honored with Mark Twain Prize MORE (R-Ky.), House Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerThe Hill's 12:30 Report Rep. Meadows to run for Freedom Caucus chairman Dems brace for immigration battle MORE (R-Ohio) and two other GOP lawmakers wrote in a letter to President Obama.

Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonCotton not ruling out 2020 White House bid GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election GOP chairman demands number of immigrants granted accidental citizenship MORE (R-Ark.) told reporters that the inability to obtain the documents should force lawmakers to delay their planned September vote on an effort to kill the deal.

The developments raises “a real question” about whether or not the 60-day window for lawmakers to review the deal — which is only supposed to begin after they have received documents pertaining to the agreement — has formally begun, he added, alluding to the possibility of stretching out the congressional debate.

Talk about the side deals is just the latest hurdle for the administration, which is seeking to ward off congressional opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. The deal would lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Most of the criticism has come from Republicans, and the White House has been determined to unify Democrats around the deal and perhaps win over some on the GOP side.

The administration appeared to change few minds during a pair of closed-door briefings Wednesday on the deal that were led by Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryThe evidence backs Trump: We have a duty to doubt election results Effective sanctions relief on Iran for sanctions’ sake What would a Hillary Clinton presidency look like? MORE, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest MonizErnest MonizFederal task force recommends safety upgrades for gas storage Energy secretary: ‘We got it right’ on Iran deal Overnight Energy: Trump visits Flint | GOP chairman defends subpoenas in climate probe MORE.

“We’re all in the process of understanding a very complicated agreement, and hearing from both sides — lots of sides — on this,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said upon exiting Wednesday’s briefing

“It’s fair to say there is bipartisan skepticism about whether Iran will meet its commitments under this deal, about whether the administration will hold them to it, and about what happens with all of Iran’s other activities which concern us so much,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the head of the Armed Services Committee.

The three cabinet officials repeatedly stressed to House lawmakers that the deal was the best way to guarantee peace and prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“They’re I think very deliberately and very smartly asking that we look not at the deal in and of itself — in other words, you can always dream of a better deal — but... consider where the deal puts you in contrast to where we were,” added Himes, who said he remained unconvinced on the deal. “And then imagine not doing it, where does that put you?”

“On those two fronts, they’re making a lot of headway.”

Upon leaving the classified session, most lawmakers said that the secretaries remained cordial, informative and polite.

Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), however, said that Kerry should “show a little bit more respect for members of Congress,” though he declined to elaborate about his complaint.  

Kerry will move from behind closed doors on Thursday when he testifies at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Iran deal.

Also on Thursday, Kerry and Moniz are scheduled to meet behind closed doors with House Democrats, as part of the administration's intensifying focus on swaying members of President Obama’s own party.

“They are working the Democratic caucus very hard and they are being invited to every possible forum to do that,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who strongly endorsed the agreement last week, is urging the extensive outreach.

“What I've asked for is education,” she said while leaving Wednesday’s briefing. “People want simplification on the provisions of the agreement with the verification assurances, the sanctions –– what happens to the sanctions. It's just a few things where most of the questions fall.”

Republicans appear nearly united in their skepticism of the deal, and some Democrats are expected to join them opposing the multilateral accord.

They will likely get a chance to do so in September, following a legally mandated 60-day period of review.

Depending on whether they are presented with a bill to kill the deal or endorse it, as much as half of all Democrats may break with the president, Sherman speculated.

Pelosi suggested Democratic leaders would be whipping the legislation when it hits the floor.

“When we whip it, we want to make sure people have the information,” she said. “We want to see what their concerns are, because I think it's very important that the Congress uphold the president's veto.”

The Obama administration’s job has only gotten harder in recent days.

Lawmakers in both parties criticized the administration's decision to bring the deal before the U.N Security Council on Monday, before Congress had a chance to weigh in, which they said effectively overran the sentiments of the American people. 

More recently, lawmakers have raised ire about the side agreements between Iran and the IAEA.

“I don’t see how a member of Congress could vote for an agreement not knowing what the full scope of the agreement actually is,” Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) told reporters after leaving Wednesday’s meeting.

“I don’t know how the secretary himself approved the deal when he had not seen all of the terms that were part of this agreement, part of the common set of understandings that led to the outcome that we find ourselves in today,” he added.

Rice defended the fact that Iran and the IAEA conducted bilateral agreements, and said U.S. officials had been fully briefed on the terms.

Himes agreed that the extra documents “may be a concern,” but that’s the way the IAEA “does and has always operated.”

“Hey would we like to know everything the IAEA is doing? Maybe so,” he said. “But that, of course is not and has never been the way the IAEA operates.”

— Mike Lillis contributed