National Security & Defense

Building Bipartisan Support for Blocking Obama’s Iran Folly

Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

It’s heartening when mainstream Democrats remind us that they don’t always march to the beat of MoveOn.org’s drum circles.

A number of Senate Democrats clearly disapprove of Senator Tom Cotton’s decision to tell Iran that Republicans won’t consider themselves bound by President Obama’s deal with it. But they have been reasonable enough to refrain from calling it treason (as some lefties alleged), and from letting it scare them off measures that Cotton and other Republicans support.

That is because, thankfully, they seem to agree with Cotton’s premise: Only a deal that can be ratified by Congress is a deal worth reaching. This is for reasons both of permanence — the freshman senator was correct in his reading of the Constitution — and prudence — Congress has shown that it understands Iran’s nature much better than this White House does.

Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, for instance, called Cotton’s letter “incredibly unfortunate and inappropriate” but said it “doesn’t diminish my support” for legislation that would allow Congress to disapprove of a deal. The day after Cotton released his letter, Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, signed onto that legislation, too.

Said bill was introduced this year by Republican senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham. Another bill, put forth by Republican senator Mark Kirk, would reapply sanctions in the event that a deal is not reached between the two parties by the negotiations’ current deadline. Both bills are intended to increase the West’s leverage and demonstrate that Congress will not support a dangerous outcome for the negotiations. (They make sense alongside each other, since they apply to different outcomes.)

A veto-proof congressional majority will be necessary for each bill to become law. Kirk claims he already has those numbers, saying his bill has the support of 68 senators. We hope he’s right, and we hope Graham and Corker’s bill gets there, too. But even in the event Congress passes a bill over the president’s veto, he may have some practical wiggle room to loosen sanctions on his own. And there is no easy way to prevent him from seeking the U.N. Security Council’s blessing for an agreement.

Given these limits, the main point of Congress’s efforts is to show that it strongly opposes a weak, giveaway deal. The bigger the majority, the merrier, so it was heartening to see Senator Rand Paul, who has at times been reticent on this issue, sign onto Corker’s bill. If he wants the Obama administration to reach a good, durable deal, he should support the added leverage the Kirk deal provides, too. Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has not publicly signed onto either bill, should support them, too, as should any Democrat serious about this crucial national-security question.

Some worry that, since such congressional efforts cannot definitively stop the president, passing them could allow him to claim tacit approval for his future actions. But, by broadcasting Congress’s unease now, they seem more likely to do the opposite.

Senator Cotton was right that an agreement without Congress’s approval can be constitutionally revoked by a future executive. Passing Corker-Graham and the Kirk bill would make Congress’s dissent clear in the event that President Obama draws out negotiations again or agrees to an unsound deal. Bipartisan support for the bills would show that some Democrats disapprove of those outcomes, too. In this situation, under this president, Congress cannot do much more than prepare for the worst.

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