The House may be heading for another legal showdown with the president, this time about lifting sanctions on Iran.
Abruptly reversing course from their plans for the week, House Republicans broke from their Senate counterparts Wednesday and set up a series of votes aimed at proving their opposition to the multinational nuclear deal with Tehran. Integral to the new strategy is an assertion that the president has not supplied Congress with all the information on the agreement.
That view is rooted in a strict reading of the law, which states that President Obama can start lifting sanctions 60 days after transmitting the agreement to Congress for review and only if Congress does not successfully vote to disapprove of the deal. What is missing, critics say, is the text of bilateral agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“The president has broken the law,” Rep. Mike Pompeo, one of the architects of the plan, said Wednesday. “He hasn’t complied with his obligations. … It’s very clear the definition of agreement includes side agreements. He hasn’t provided them, and when he does we might take some different action.”
The problem is that the administration has said it does not have the text of those separate agreements and the IAEA has said it is against its protocol to make them public. Absent any change, the only recourse for the House would be to again sue President Obama, said Blaise Misztal, director of national security at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“All I think [the vote] sets up is a potential court battle,” Misztal said, adding that, practically, the House votes do not make sense beyond political theater. “If these were agreements the U.S. were a party to and had in its possession and was withholding from Congress, it would make sense here.”
The tactical change came after House Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team were barraged at a morning conference meeting. Members threatened to vote against a rule setting up a vote on a resolution of disapproval of the Iran deal. But members saw that as a losing strategy because they do not have the votes to override a presidential veto.
To assuage members’ concerns, House GOP leaders teed up a new three-pronged approach: In addition to the measure from Pompeo and Rep. Peter Roskam that asserts the administration hasn't sent Congress all the information, leaders also plan to vote on two bills, one banning the administration from lifting sanctions and another registering an up-or-down vote on approval of the deal.
It's not clear any of this would make any substantive difference, as Senate Republican leaders have said they will not bring any of it to their chamber's floor and Democrats have shown no indication of backing away from the administration, meaning Obama still has the votes to sustain a veto (although if a resolution of approval fails the House, Obama would not be faced with vetoing anything).
The Obama administration was dismissive of the House GOP’s contention about the status of the deal.
“Sounds like a plan hatched up at Tortilla Coast on a Tuesday night,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said at Wednesday’s press briefing, referring to the popular restaurant near the Capitol. “I have seen some press reports on the internal Republican strife. Our belief is that Congress, through much debate, set up their own oversight mechanism for this deal. ... And our view has been that according to their own design, they can play the spoiler in this deal, and that would be by passing and, if necessary, overturning a resolution of disapproval.”
In the Senate, Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who cowrote legislation allowing Congress to take a vote on the deal in the first place, told detractors in the lower chamber to move on.
Corker, who said that he had spoken with several members of the House about the issue, said that he was sympathetic to their complaints. "We don't have all the documents,” he said, echoing House conservative concerns that side agreements to the deal have not yet been released to members of Congress. But, Corker said, “I think the best way to express concern about the documents, but also concern about the deal itself, is to vote to disapprove the deal and to go forward in that manner.”
Corker would not say whether he agreed with House conservatives that because the side agreements to the deal have yet to be presented to Congress, the proverbial clock for the legislative branch to take action on the deal has not yet started. Whether or not that is true, Corker said, Congress must act before Sept. 17. “I'm sure that the president is going to conclude that that's the case [that Sept. 17 is the deadline]. I’m sure that the U.N. Security Council is going to conclude that that’s the case."
What’s more, Corker said, conservatives have yet to present their case for what additional time would buy them. “I’m not sure where you take that,” he said.
Given that supporters hold a veto-proof majority, there is little Congress can do to stop the deal with Iran from moving forward at this point, Corker and other Republican leaders acknowledged. But, the Foreign Relations chairman reminded House members, this deal is not a treaty and it can be undone by the next president; a majority vote in both chambers against the deal—including yeas from the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, Sen. Ben Cardin, and his predecessor, Sen. Robert Menendez, could be convincing to whoever occupies the White House in 2017. “That opens the door for the next president to look at this in a very different way,” he said.
Still, bringing up the Pompeo-Roskam motion would allay some House GOP concerns for the time being. Rep. Jeff Duncan said doing so would at least buy the GOP more time.
“We can delay it for another 60 days and say the clock isn’t running,” Duncan said. “I think it is important to see how the negotiations played out.”
What is clear is that House Republican members are frustrated and believe their leadership is giving up on the Iran issue, rushing a vote that is doomed to eventual failure because Congress lacks a veto-proof majority. They believe leaders should try to put more pressure on Democrats to turn against the administration and that the contents of the bilateral agreements could change some minds and potentially attract enough Democrats to be able to override Obama’s veto of a resolution of disapproval.
“What’s self-defeating is for us to allow, with incomplete information, the vote of disapproval to fail, because that’s a tacit approval of the deal,” said Rep. John Fleming, a member of the House Freedom Caucus. “So we’re saying, 'Look, the president has not met his obligations, so why should we have a vote?' And yeah, we may find out some things in that agreement that are absurd, and then even Democrats wouldn’t want to vote, and we’d have a chance to disapprove.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, however, said he does not think Democrats would be swayed by the contents of the IAEA deals. But he said if the House decides to vote on the Roskam motion, it could open up the possibility of court action to decide whether the agreements should have been included in the contents subject to 60-day review by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.
“These are pretty, as I understand it, standard agreements between the IAEA and the host country, the country that’s being inspected,” Hoyer said. “If they vote on Roskam, that means they’re not going to vote on the agreement. And if they don’t vote on the agreement, then it’s going to go to court.”
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Daniel Newhauser is a staff correspondent for National Journal, where he primarily covers the House of Representatives. He was formerly a House leadership reporter for Roll Call, where he started as an intern in 2010 and quickly earned a slot as a beat reporter.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Newhauser traveled further West to study journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and write for newspapers including the East Valley Tribune and the Green Valley News & Sun.