Obama's last hope for GOP support on Iran: Susan Collins

Obama's last hope for GOP support on Iran: Susan Collins
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are united in their opposition to President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran — with one exception.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsSenate takes lead on Trump’s infrastructure proposal Navy leaders defend Trump's lackluster ship budget Overnight Healthcare: CBO fallout | GOP senators distance themselves from House bill | Trump budget chief blasts score | Schumer says House bill belongs 'in the trash' MORE (R-Maine) has yet to take a position on the agreement, making her the last undecided Senate Republican who could conceivably side with the president.

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Some observers say Collins, a centrist known for bucking party convention, could go it alone next month and vote against a resolution to kill the Iran deal when it comes to the Senate floor.

“At this time, Sen. Collins is still gathering a lot of information and has not reached a final decision,” an aide said last week. The aide reaffirmed on Tuesday that Collins is still undecided.

Collins “remains concerned about several aspects of the agreement, such as the lack of a good inspection regime to make sure that the Iranians are not cheating on the agreement,” the aide added, while noting that the senator has been “meeting with people on both sides of this very complex and important issue.”

“She believes a good inspection regime is absolutely essential and is carefully weighing this issue in her decision making.” 

On Wednesday afternoon, Collins's office said that she would not announce a position on the deal until after lawmakers return to Washington in September.

Collins became the last Senate Republican on the fence after Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiA retreat from the Paris climate pact would imperil U.S. interests Overnight Finance: Dems introduce minimum wage bill | Sanders clashes with Trump budget chief | Border tax proposal at death's door Overnight Energy: Trump energy nominees face Congress | OPEC to extend production cuts MORE (R-Alaska) announced on Friday that she would oppose the agreement. The Alaska senator said the deal does not require Iran to completely abandon its nuclear program.

Murkowski and Sen. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeLawmakers reintroduce measure to lift Cuba travel restrictions Majority of Senate supports Cuban tourism bill Montana GOP senator: Gianforte 'needs to apologize' MORE (R-Ariz.) — who announced earlier this month that he would vote against the deal — had been considered the only other Senate Republicans who might side with Obama.

There are reasons to think Collins is truly torn.

She was one of just seven Senate Republicans who did not sign a controversial letter to the Iranian government in March that warned a nuclear deal could be revoked by the next president

Collins may also be feeling boxed in by Sen. Angus KingAngus KingOvernight Healthcare: Senate GOP to start writing its healthcare bill Trump budget chief: Medicaid cuts won’t affect anyone now on program Medicare’s billion challenge: preventing older adult falls MORE (I-Maine), who came out in support of the agreement in a floor speech shortly before the August recess. Though he is officially an independent, King caucuses with Democrats. 

Additionally, Collins might be hesitant to rebuff the president, given that the United States took a lead role in the multination Iran negotiations.

“Sen. Collins is quite frequently concerned with good governance and good process,” said Blaise Misztal, the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s national security program. “I could see her not wanting this deal to have to go to a presidential veto.”

Still, close observers of the Iran deal remain skeptical that Collins, or any other Republican, will side with the president and vote to uphold the deal.

“Given that the way votes are breaking, it might even be difficult for opponents to get the 60 votes they need in the Senate to get past cloture,” Misztal added. “I don’t think [Collins is] going to feel that compunction to have to break with her party on the deal.”

The White House likely needs the support of 34 Senate Democrats to uphold a veto of the disapproval resolution, and the support of 41 to prevent it from ever reaching Obama’s desk. So far, only two Senate Democrats have announced that they will oppose the deal, while 29 have committed to backing it. Sen. Patty MurrayPatty MurraySenate Dems urge White House not to roll back free birth control rule Overnight Finance: Dems introduce minimum wage bill | Sanders clashes with Trump budget chief | Border tax proposal at death's door Sanders, Democrats introduce minimum wage bill MORE (D-Wash.) became the latest supporter of the deal on Tuesday

The math is slightly different in the House, where the lack of a filibuster means Republicans will have no trouble passing the initial resolution. If the House voted on whether to override Obama, Democrats could afford to lose no more than 43 members to uphold the White House’s veto. 

While supporters and opponents of the deal have been focused on the Senate, there’s also a chance that one or two House Republicans break from their party and oppose legislation aiming to kill the deal. 

"It is a rare occasion when Republicans all vote together,” Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) — an ardent critic of the Iran agreement — told reporters earlier this week.

“This will be close, I suspect,” he added. “I can’t imagine there will be too many [defectors].”

But might there be at least one?

“Sure,” Pompeo answered.

Reps. Walter Jones (N.C.), Justin AmashJustin AmashGOP lawmaker backs Dem push for Trump tax returns The Hill's 12:30 Report The Memo: GOP talk of impeachment highlights Trump’s troubles MORE (Mich.) and Thomas Massie (Ky.) are considered to be the House Republicans most likely to oppose a resolution against the Iran deal.

All three are often on the opposite side of Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump aide: Boehner is the disaster Boehner: Tax reform is 'just a bunch of happy talk' Lobbying World MORE (R-Ohio).

However, Jones — a former Democrat — appears to be facing a primary challenge against veteran Republican operative Taylor Griffin next year, which could make a defection on Iran politically risky. Griffin came within six points of ousting Jones last year, and he criticized the lawmaker earlier this summer for being “just not a good conservative.”

Spokespeople for Massie and Amash said in recent days that the lawmakers had yet to settle on a position. A spokesperson for Jones did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The White House is not expecting any GOP support for the deal, but would surely not hesitate to use even a single Republican vote as evidence of bipartisan backing.

Yet there are risks in touting any GOP support, given opposition from top Democrats such as Sens. Bob MenendezRobert MenendezThe Mideast-focused Senate letter we need to see Taiwan deserves to participate in United Nations The way forward on the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump MORE (N.J.) and Charles SchumerCharles SchumerHow Trump can score a big league bipartisan win on infrastructure Overnight Finance: Dems introduce minimum wage bill | Sanders clashes with Trump budget chief | Border tax proposal at death's door GOP senators distance themselves from House ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (N.Y.) — the likely next Senate Democratic leader — as well as Reps. Eliot Engel (N.Y.) and Brad Sherman (Calif.).  

“Even if one or two Republicans do vote for the deal, it really matters very little because it is now virtually certain that the deal will be voted down by significant, bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress,” said Jamil Jaffer, a former top aide to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and current director of George Mason Law School’s Homeland and National Security Law Program.

By voting it down, lawmakers will be “sapping the deal of all political credibility, and making it clear to European companies that they ought wait until at least November 2016 before taking any action to start trading with Iran," he added.

This story was updated at 5:36 p.m.