John Kerry's top aide could face a choice next week: miss a key hearing on the Iran nuclear deal featuring his boss, or defy the GOP chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
Jon Finer and the State Department appear likely to choose the latter option, which could further poison an already tense relationship between the Obama administration and committee Republicans.
The GOP-led panel may try and force Finer, Kerry's chief of staff, to testify next week, despite department objections that Finer is consumed with responding to questions and concerns from lawmakers in both chambers about the accord. Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, in a letter obtained by National Journal, told State on Tuesday that he has scheduled Finer's appearance next Tuesday, the same day as a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the nuclear deal with Kerry and other Cabinet officials.
But as of Tuesday evening, nothing had been formally scheduled. And State appears to be declining to make Finer available next week to discuss document production in the House probe of the fatal 2012 attacks on a diplomatic compound in Libya and related issues.
"We ... have informed the Committee that key Department staff on the Iran deal cannot participate in a hearing next week because of their focus on this time-sensitive national security matter," said Alec Gerlach, a State Department spokesman.
Gowdy's letter comes a day after a senior State official told Gowdy in a letter that Finer's appearance "will not be possible" and that State "cannot participate" in a hearing Gowdy's staff suggested holding next week.
The July 20 letter from Julia Frifield, assistant secretary of State for legislative affairs, says the department is "engaging intensively" with Congress on the deal, which lawmakers will review for 60 days, and that the two weeks ahead of the congressional recess are vital to that work.
"The Secretary and his key staff who have been involved in the Iran issue for years must focus their efforts on this critical national security issue next week, and in particular on responding to the House and Senate's questions and concerns," Frifield wrote.
The letter states that "we would be happy to discuss finding an appropriate witness to testify before the Committee on an appropriate date."
Gerlach also suggested that Finer is not the best person to testify anyway, noting that "day-to-day management of our cooperation with the Benghazi Committee is not handled by the Department's chief of staff."
Gowdy is seeking answers from State officials about what Republicans say has been inadequate disclosure of documents to the panel, while the department has pushed back against claims that it has been unresponsive to the committee's demands. A spokesman for Gowdy did not comment on the potential hearing.
Committee Democrats released the letter from State on Tuesday, and accused Gowdy of "interference" with the Iran deal.
Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat, noted that Finer has spent months on the Iran negotiations. "This is either embarrassingly poor planning or a flimsy attempt by Republicans to scuttle the Iran deal," Cummings said.