Between ObamaCare, immigration reform, the budget, and food stamps, there isn’t much that Democrats and Republicans in Congress agree on these days. However, President Obama’s historic deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions may be just the thing to get lawmakers from both sides of the aisle working together again.
Unfortunately for Obama, they'll be united against him.
Within hours of announcing the agreement, the White House was met by stiff opposition from high-ranking Democrats who vowed to move forward with legislation aimed at tightening sanctions against Iran — despite the Obama administration’s concerns that the move could derail the sensitive negotiations for a long-term deal.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the most vocal detractor from the president’s own party, denounced the framework set up by his former colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry, to pause Iran’s march toward weapons of mass destruction in exchange for easing sanctions. His chief complaint? That Iran only had to freeze its nuclear enrichment program, while the United States was giving up its most valuable negotiating tool. (The administration insists that the sanctions could easily be resurrected if Iran backslides.)
"This disproportionality of this agreement makes it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will join together and pass additional sanctions when we return in December,” said Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate. “I intend to discuss that possibility with my colleagues."
Schumer will have no trouble finding Republican allies to advance his cause, as several GOP legislators have also expressed a desire to move forward with a bill that would pile penalties on the Iranian regime.
The six-month deal, which was reached early Sunday morning in Geneva, is an interim step designed to give negotiators breathing room to hammer out a more permanent arrangement to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Democrats and Republicans alike were unhappy with the “Joint Plan of Action” because it allows Iran to keep much of its nuclear infrastructure for peaceful purposes. The United States will keep its key oil and banking sanctions in place, but let about $7 billion worth of aid and commerce flow between the two countries.
In the past 24 hours, Republicans have lined up in opposition to the plan, saying it ultimately weakens the U.S.'s bargaining position. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) argued that Congress should continue passing sanctions “until Iran completely abandons its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) compared the deal to the busted agreements with North Korea over its nuclear program, adding that the pact is a “dangerous step that degrades our pressure on the Iranian regime.”
Schumer isn’t the only Democrat criticizing the agreement. Bruised by the botched ObamaCare rollout, many Democrats are looking for a way to distance themselves from Obama in advance of the 2014 midterm elections. Punishing Iran, which has long flouted the international community’s prohibitions against developing nuclear capabilities, is an easy — and politically safe — policy for lawmakers to get behind.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Senate would move forward with heightened sanctions, but delay their implementation by six months. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN’s State of the Nation that the White House let Iran off the hook. “I don’t think you make them bargain in good faith by going squishy,” Engel said.
And even before the framework was announced, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) signed onto a letter urging the administration not to accept terms that would allow Iran to continue enriching nuclear materials for any reason. McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also signed the letter.
The House approved more punitive sanctions in late July, just days before Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, took office. The measure passed with broad bipartisan support — the final vote was 400 to 20 — and gave the president the power to take action against foreign governments that do business with Iran.
If the Senate follows suit, it could put Obama in the awkward position of vetoing a bipartisan bill aimed at getting tough on Iran — a situation that the White House would understandably want to avoid.