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GOP faces hurdles in blocking a Biden Iran deal

Republicans are facing an uphill battle as they seek to block the Biden administration from implementing a new Iran nuclear deal.

Dozens of Senate Republicans are threatening to hamper, if not scuttle, any new agreement if President Biden doesn’t submit it to Congress, a move that would also spark an intense brawl that would allow GOP lawmakers to force a vote on formally disavowing a deal.

But Democrats are confident they could defeat a formal resolution disapproving an agreement, if the administration sends it to Congress, and say that Republican efforts to attack an agreement in other ways, like trying to cut off funding, couldn’t make it past a Democratic-controlled Congress or Biden’s veto pen.

“I don’t know how they could,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The Hill about GOP efforts to block an agreement. “I think if we were to find a deal, you would likely see it survive.” 

The prospect of another congressional fight comes as the administration is reaching a critical point in its diplomacy with Tehran to either revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or abandon the talks if an agreement on a mutual return to compliance is not reached. 

The Obama administration struck an international deal with Iran in 2015 that lifted sanctions in return for limits placed on Iran’s nuclear program coupled with inspections. The Trump administration took the United States out of the agreement in 2018, doubling down on a sanctions regime targeting Iran’s nuclear activity, its military and human rights abuses. 

Republicans are deeply skeptical of the Biden administration’s negotiations with Tehran, which has amped up its nuclear program, expanded its missile arsenals and supported terrorist proxies and their attacks in the Middle East.

“The Biden administration’s prepared to surrender everything,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “They desperately want a deal, and I don’t think there’s anything they’re unwilling to give to get a deal.”

If the Biden administration strikes a deal with Tehran it’ll need to decide if it is going to submit the agreement to Congress, which will determine how Republicans try to block it. 

Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), a 2015 law that paved the way for the implementation of the Obama-era deal, any significant agreements reached with Iran require those documents to be submitted to Congress for review and possible rejection. 

That would trigger a resolution of disapproval, where opponents of an agreement with Iran would need to get 60 votes in the Senate to overcome procedural hurdles. It’s an uphill climb that scuttled attempts in 2015 to block the Obama administration’s agreement, which narrowly failed in an 58-42 vote with four Democrats voting with 54 Republicans to disapprove the agreement. 

Republicans at the time controlled 54 seats in the Senate. They would have a tougher climb now because they would need to win over 10 Democratic senators. 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who voted against blocking the deal in 2015, predicted that a vote of disapproval would play out largely the same way. 

“If there was a vote in the Senate my impression is there would not be the votes to block a diplomatic agreement just like there wasn’t in 2015,” he said. 

Kaine added that “it would probably be a vote just like last time.” 

“I think most people realize that there was a diplomatic deal that was working, and Trump blew it up,” he said. 

The four Democratic senators who voted to disapprove the 2015 deal are all still in the Senate, meaning the GOP could find some allies. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who was at the time the No. 3 Democrat, voted against it, as did Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who is now Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), the No. 2 Democrat on the committee, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Menendez sent a warning shot to the administration during a floor speech earlier this month, appearing unconvinced by the Biden administration’s pledge to find a “longer and stronger agreement.” 

“A year later I have yet to hear any parameters of longer or stronger terms, or whether it’s even a feasible prospect,” Menendez said. 

Menendez brushed aside a question this week about if he would support a GOP resolution of disapproval — saying “I first have to see the deal and then I can make a judgment” — and indicated that it was too soon to say if the administration was losing support on Capitol Hill for an agreement. 

“I don’t know where the level of support is or is not because I don’t think members know exactly what re-entry means. What is the deal? Is it exactly the way it was? Is it different? If so, how? What are we giving?” Menendez asked. 

The administration has not yet committed to delivering to Congress a formal report from Vienna, where U.S. officials are participating in an eighth round of indirect negotiations with the Iranians over a pathway for both sides to reenter JCPOA. 

State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter told reporters in a briefing on Tuesday that the administration “will carefully consider the facts as well as the circumstances of any U.S. return to the JCPOA to determine the legal implications, which would include under INARA. We’re committed to ensuring the requirements of INARA are satisfied.”

Cruz and dozens of GOP senators sent a letter this week warning that they could try to tank an agreement even if the administration doesn’t send it through Congress. 

“We also write to emphasize that we are committed to using the full range of options and leverage available to United States Senators to ensure that you meet those obligations, and that the implementation of any agreement will be severely if not terminally hampered if you do not,” they wrote in a letter to Biden

But in the near term, Republicans could struggle to get legislation placing restrictions on a deal through Congress. 

Kaine floated that Republicans could try to defund the deal or pass or pass a resolution disapproving it outside of the INARA.  
 
“[But] how do they get that passed in a Democratic House, in a Democratic Senate?” he asked. 
 
Republicans are feeling bullish about their chances of winning back the House or Senate in November, which could give them more power starting in 2023. 

The International Crisis Group (ICG), which published a report in January reviewing the last year of diplomacy with Iran, quoted a senior Iranian official raising fears that a GOP-controlled Congress or a GOP president could undo any deal struck with the Biden administration. 

“The uncertainty of sanctions relief’s durability, which depends on whether Republicans take over Congress [as a result of midterm elections] in 2023 or the White House in 2025, is more damaging for our economic operators than the certainty of living under a sanctions regime whose peak is already behind us,” the Iranian official told the ICG.

But Republicans would still face hurdles, including the requirement for Democratic votes and Biden’s veto pen. Instead, they appear to be betting on the long game, warning that the bill could be ripped up not in 2023 but in 2025, if they win the White House. 

“Because they chose to pursue a hard-left policy of appeasement,” Cruz said, “the next Republican president will rip to shreds whatever disastrous deal they negotiate.”

Tags Ben Cardin Bob Menendez Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Iran Iran nuclear deal Joe Biden Joe Manchin Ted Cruz Tim Kaine
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