Rejecting the Iran Deal Alone Won't Be Enough for Conservatives

Lacking the votes to derail the nuclear agreement, opponents are trying to force the Republican leadership into a more confrontational strategy.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

House Republicans unanimously disapprove of the nuclear deal the Obama administration struck with Iran. They have long before it was completed. And it is now possible that a resolution to block the agreement won’t even receive a vote in the chamber.

This is not because Republicans have suddenly changed their mind, or because Democrats have come up with a way to stop them—this being the House and not the Senate, the minority has little power to derail legislation backed by the majority.

It is, once again, all about conservatives. Now that it’s clear opponents of the Iran deal don’t have the votes to block it, hard-liners in the House want Republican leaders to take a more confrontational approach than simply voting to disapprove of the deal—a resolution that would either die in the Senate or get vetoed by the president. Enough conservatives protested that they were able to force Speaker John Boehner to scrap plans for a procedural vote setting up debate on the Iran deal.

Our colleagues at National Journal reported that conservatives instead want to vote on a resolution declaring that the Obama administration hasn’t complied with legislation Congress passed earlier this year, which gave lawmakers the right to weigh in on the Iran agreement in the first place. The measure, authored by Representative Peter Roskam of Illinois, would declare that the administration hasn’t been transparent with Congress because it hasn’t sent details of the secret “side deals” that critics say were an unofficial part of the accord. The law giving Congress the power of review set a 60-day deadline for legislative action, but Roskam’s measure would challenge that by asserting the clock hasn't started, as a result of the administration not sending over the complete agreement.

Seeking to mollify the conservatives and find a way to pass something on Iran, Boehner and his team on Wednesday reportedly pitched lawmakers on passing Roskam’s resolution along with legislation aimed at blocking Obama from lifting sanctions as part of the agreement. Finally, the House would vote on a motion to approve the Iran deal, which would fail by design but would politically force Democrats to affirm their support for the agreement rather than merely opposing an effort to block it.

As with most strategies floated by congressional conservatives, this gambit is unlikely to go anywhere. It has the support of—surprise—Ted Cruz, but not the Republican leadership in the Senate, which is fighting with Democrats over a simple vote to disapprove the deal. At best, registering a protest over the alleged side deals would lay the groundwork for the House to sue Obama if, as expected, the administration implemented the agreement anyway. (Lawsuits have been the GOP’s preferred method of challenging the president over the last year.) But as Politico notes, the revolt over an issue that unites Republicans is yet another warning sign for Boehner, whose next task is to find a way to solve the much thornier problem of funding the government over the objections of those same conservatives.

For Congress as a whole, the stumble on Iran is a reminder that when lawmakers seek to assert their prerogative on foreign policy, they often bite off more than they can chew. Republicans and Democrats insisted that they have an opportunity to authorize Obama’s war against ISIS. A year later, Congress has whiffed completely. They did the same, on a bipartisan basis, on the Iran deal, and now the administration might again be able to proceed without any formal input from the legislative branch.