House Republicans have abandoned their ambitions to sue the Obama administration over the nuclear deal with Iran.
Four months ago, GOP lawmakers were licking their chops over the prospect of dragging a key pillar of President Obama’s legacy through the courtroom.
“We will use every tool at our disposal to stop, slow and delay this agreement from being fully implemented,” he pledged.
But now, on the eve of the deal’s implementation, the dream has drifted away, and been supplanted by a handful of legislative efforts designed to prevent the U.S. from lifting sanctions against Iran.
“I don’t know that [a lawsuit is] on the immediate horizon,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), who had been in initial talks about a court battle last year.
Republicans never made a concrete plan to sue, but it was floated as a possibility that many lawmakers actively supported last year, while debating the nuclear pact.
The prospect of litigation was raised during a final moment of tension between Boehner and House conservatives such as Salmon, a founding member of the rabble-rousing Freedom Caucus.
When it became clear that enough Senate Democrats would side with the White House to block efforts to kill the nuclear pact outright, Boehner — who had already been struggling with a wave of opposition from the right — acceded to House conservatives’ call for a new plan to chip away at the agreement.
Boehner’s departure from the House in October left prospects for the lawsuit dangling.
A decision not to file suit helps clarify congressional Republicans’ strategy to push back on the Iran deal, which they universally oppose.
Instead of trying to use the courts to uproot the agreement entirely — which could take months, if not years — the accord's many critics appear more interested in undermining it through U.S. sanctions.
“It’s a recognition that it could take forever and that the threats with Iran pose a lot more of an immediate threat,” said Salmon.
“There’s a whole legislative package that we’re going to try to cobble together in the next couple of weeks,” said David Pasch, a spokesman for Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who was a critical voice in the House’s broadside against the Obama administration over the Iran deal last year.
Roskam still supports litigation, Pasch said, but is leaving the matter up to Speaker Ryan.
“It’s not an angle that I’ve heard of lately.”
A spokeswoman with Ryan did not respond to repeated inquiries about the prospects of a lawsuit. Multiple lawmakers and aides, including the office of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), said that they were unaware of any active effort to a draft a suit.
The nuclear deal lifts global sanctions against Iran in exchange for new limits on the country’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon. Sanctions will not lift until the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog certifies that Iran has taken a series of steps to make it more difficult to build a nuclear bomb, which is expected as soon as this weekend.
“Implementation day — which is the day on which Iran proves that it has sufficiently downsized its nuclear program and can begin to receive sanctions relief — is going to take place very soon,” Secretary of State John Kerry said this week. “Likely within the next coming days somewhere.”
This week, the House voted 191-106, nearly along party lines, to make it more difficult for the U.S. to lift sanctions. However, more than 130 lawmakers missed that vote, due to a narrow voting window imposed by Ryan, and a repeat appears likely later this month — but not until after the sanctions will likely have already been lifted.
The White House has promised to veto the bill, should it reach Obama’s desk.
Lawmakers in both parties had fought to block the nuclear agreement last year.
The House was originally set to take a single vote to kill the accord in September, but changed course upon urging from the GOP’s more conservative members, after it became clear that condemnation would not get through the Senate.
The House ended up holding three separate votes: one to approve of the deal, which was designed to fail and embarrass the White House; a second to prevent the lifting of sanctions against Iran under the deal; and a third to declare that the Obama administration had not met the demands of legislation allowing Congress to review the agreement.
The third vote, which sailed through 245-186, appeared designed specifically to build the legal case for a lawsuit.
Republicans claimed that the White House had broken the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which ordered the administration to give Congress a copy of the deal and “all related materials and annexes.”
Critics of the agreement accuse the administration of failing to hand over two “side deals” between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which outline how the United Nations watchdog would inspect for signs of Iran’s past nuclear weaponization work.
By not handing over those “side deals,” critics say, the administration broke the law.
The Obama administration and the IAEA have maintained that the inspection terms are always kept secret and fall outside the scope of the legislation giving Congress a chance to review the agreement.
The White House had dismissed the idea of a lawsuit.
“Like many decisions that are made probably on a Tuesday night at Tortilla Coast, they seem like a great idea after a couple of margaritas,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said last year, referring to a Capitol Hill Mexican restaurant popular among conservative House Republicans.
“But when faced with the scrutiny of the light of day, they don’t seem quite as realistic.”