Politics & Policy

The GOP Debate: A Toothless Iran Bill or No Iran Bill

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) hosted a meeting with Senators Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), and Ted Cruz (R., Texas) on Monday to discuss the prospects of voting on several Republican amendments to a bill that calls for congressional review of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

“The principal focus [of that meeting was that] we should insist on a vote on the most important amendments and use the authority of the majority to put important national-security issues to a vote,” one GOP senator who attended tells National Review. There was disagreement among the four, but the substance of it has not been made public. 

But the discussion came about because Cotton and Rubio used a rare procedural move in an attempt to force a vote on two amendments to the Iran bill, a tactic Democrats cited as a justification for mounting a procedural objection to votes on any amendments. “The minority doesn’t have the ability to block an amendment; the minority has the ability to slow things down,” the senator says.

An eventual vote will register a congressional majority’s disapproval of the Iran deal in the record, even as it allows President Obama to claim that the deal has Congress’s imprimatur.

For GOP leaders, though, floor time is money. McConnell ended debate on the unamended Iran bill Tuesday evening, setting the stage for an eventual vote that will register a congressional majority’s disapproval of the Iran deal in the record, even as it allows President Obama to claim that the deal has Congress’s imprimatur.

Such a move frustrates national-security hawks who trusted that McConnell’s pledge to lead the Senate by regular order would allow Republicans to force the kinds of votes needed to restrain the White House. Republicans disagree as to whether Cotton’s legerdemain or GOP leadership’s desire to “show [the party] can govern” caused the breakdown in the amendment process, but one thing is certain: President Obama gets what he wants, and Senate Democrats avoid having to take embarrassing votes.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) defended McConnell’s decision to end debate on the Iran bill.

“If you’ve got objections, and the objections are coming from the other side because of some of the procedural issues that have come up, understandably, you can’t just keep a bill open forever,” Corker — the lead Republican on the bill — said to reporters Wednesday in an allusion to Cotton’s maneuver. “We were moving along in a very constructive way until procedural issues came into play, unannounced.”

Senator David Vitter (R., La.) doesn’t buy that, accusing Corker and GOP leadership of collaborating with Democrats in order to avoid voting on controversial amendments.

“This has been a determined, choreographed effort to close the door on an open amendment process,” Vitter said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “I’m not being blocked by Senator Cotton. I know that. Everybody knows that. We are being blocked by the managers of this bill. I think it’s highly, highly regrettable.”

To bolster his argument, Corker says that Cruz was in line to get a vote on his amendment — which stipulates that Congress must approve the Iran deal affirmatively for it to take effect — before Cotton and Rubio made their play. Cruz’s measure would have needed 60 votes to pass, though — an unlikely outcome, given the Democrats’ preference for the current version, which says that Congress must disapprove the deal to block it.

“If a resolution of disapproval passed, it would be vetoed by the president,” Senator Tim Kaine (D., Va.) explained to the Washington Post. “If he could convince one-third plus one in one house of Congress to stick with him on the veto, that amounts to ‘no action.’ Which is then defined as ‘approval.’ That’s a very deferential standard for the president.”

That’s why some national-security hawks supported Cotton and Rubio, even as they offered amendments that most senators regarded as poison pills. The current legislation has the advantage of at least establishing that majorities in both chambers of Congress opposed the deal, proponents say, though it allows President Obama to claim that he worked within the process established by law.

“If you’re going to get Congress involved, the question is to what end and what are the ultimate implications of it?” says one GOP operative close to several senators involved. “It’s to give Obama a 34-vote threshold for approval of this deal.”

Cotton and Rubio’s maneuvers hardly required Democrats to block all amendments. Their proposals — which would have required Iran to close its nuclear facilities and to recognize the state of Israel, respectively — had no chance of becoming law. Under the rules of the Senate, those amendments would have been erased and superseded by the broader Iran bill.

Republican leaders declined to use their own procedural power to get around those Democratic objections because they want to proceed to other legislation, including the passage of a trade bill that GOP leaders believe will “prove they can govern.” Senator John Thune (R., S.D.), the conference chairman, says it would take too much time to force a vote on each amendment over the objections of the Democrats.

“The coin of the realm in the Senate is floor time, and we’ve got [a trade-promotion-authority bill],” Thune says. “We’ve got the FISA deadline coming up at the end of the month; we’ve got the highway [bill] deadline coming up at the end of the month; there’s just a lot of stuff that we need to try and transact and, you know, you could stay on this thing indefinitely but I’m not sure what that really gets you.”

It’s surprising that Cotton finds himself at odds with party leadership over foreign policy. As a Tea Party congressman-turned-Senate candidate, Cotton was supposed to bridge the divide between the establishment and grassroots wings of the GOP. McConnell spoke regularly with Cotton when he was first mulling a Senate bid, and praised his maiden speech — an extended treatment of national-security policy.

“I just wanted to congratulate the junior senator from Arkansas for an extraordinary initial speech and look forward to his leadership on all of these issues in the coming years,” McConnell said in March.

A few weeks later, Cotton’s brand of “leadership” frustrates some colleagues. “He’s in the position Cruz was in two years ago,” says one senior GOP Senate aide who praises Cruz for playing a “constructive” role in this debate. “Trying to raise his profile.”

Cruz refuses to revel in such unexpected compliments, choosing to defend Cotton and criticize Democrats instead.

“Democrats, because they were afraid of voting on those amendments, used that procedural step as an excuse to take their marbles and go home.”

“Senator Cotton and Senator Rubio both exercised their prerogatives as members of the Senate to force a vote on important amendments that would materially advance our national security,” he tells NR. “And the Democrats, because they were afraid of voting on those amendments, used that procedural step as an excuse to take their marbles and go home.”

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

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