Iran bill a mess after Cotton, Rubio try to force votes – Politico
Sens. Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio used a hardball procedural tactic on Thursday to force contentious votes on a bill allowing congressional review of a nuclear deal with Iran, a move that jeopardizes the measure’s future.
After being blocked by Democrats for several days, Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rubio (R-Fla.) used a parliamentary procedure to try to compel votes on amendments that would make Iran relinquish its nuclear facilities before getting economic sanctions relief and require that Iran recognize Israel’s statehood as a condition of any nuclear deal.
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The move blindsided Democrats who had been working with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to pass the bipartisan bill. Afterwards, Corker offered a grim assessment of the amendment process. Still, the bill is likely to pass eventually, albeit with few alterations requested by the GOP.
“We have been working very constructively with the other side of the aisle to bring up both very controversial amendments and amendments that will make the bill much stronger,” Corker told reporters. “With the actions that just occurred on the floor that may have changed the dynamic significantly.”
Senators in both parties said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would likely have to move to cut off debate on the bill after Democrats sent clear intentions to GOP leadership that they would no longer play nice on voting on GOP amendments.
“My sense is, today, that Mitch will move toward filing cloture (to end debate) on Monday,” Corker said in an interview later.
“I think the best road ahead is to file cloture,” said former Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who wrote much of the bill with Corker. “For the Republican leadership, the question is: ‘Do you want a bill or not?’”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who frequently used procedural tactics to shut down uncertain amendment processes when he was in power and infuriated Republicans by doing so, said McConnell “hasn’t asked me for any advice and I’m not giving any.” He refused to say if Thursday’s events validated his approach as majority leader.
Cotton and Rubio’s maneuver, made under the guidance of top conservative policy aides, blew up a tentative agreement to vote on several other amendments on Thursday, likely including one from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would require Congress affirmatively vote for any nuclear deal with Iran. But that series was unlikely to include Cotton and Rubio’s proposals and a frustrated Cotton instead forced the chamber to consider their proposals.
“We have been consistently blocked from bringing up these amendments for a vote. It’s fine if you want to vote no,” Cotton said as Cardin and Corker looked on. “But we need to vote. We need to vote now.”
A frustrated Cardin, unable to block the maneuver, said the strategy from the conservative duo is going to “make it much more difficult for us to be able to proceed.” Corker moved to defend Cardin as well from the charges that senators were trying to avoid tough votes.
“My friend from Maryland was willing to have more poison pill votes,” Corker said. “But I sense that the context of this may have just changed.”
Cotton responded: “I would say these are not poison pills. These are vitamin pills.”
After the row, the Senate moved off the Iran bill and onto a veto override of a disapproval resolution for the president’s labor policies, giving McConnell and bill supporters some breathing room to try and get the measure back on track. Sources in both parties offered varying assessments, with some doubting there would be any more amendment votes and others predicting the snag is only temporary.
McConnell told senators at a party lunch that there won’t be any more votes until Monday, according to an attendee.
McConnell and his deputies have taken a hands-off approach and delegated much of the floor management to Corker and Cardin, but a number of GOP lawmakers, including presidential contenders like Rubio, have battled for votes on provisions that could unravel the coalition backing the bill if they were adopted.
Even though sources said Cruz was in line to get a vote on his proposal until Cotton and Rubio made their move on the floor, the Texas Republican blamed Democrats for the fiasco.
“Democrats are blocking amendments because the Democrats don’t to vote on a requirement that Iran recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and they’re also blocking my amendment,” Cruz told reporters. “It is unfortunate to see Democrats putting partisan politics above national security, above standing with Israel.”
In addition to Rubio, Cotton and Cruz’s proposals, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is still demanding an amendment that would require a majority of Congress to approve a deal with Iran — even though he’s one of only two senators to already receive a vote on an amendment this week.
Johnson’s offering was defeated Monday, 39-57, but he remains unhappy that his GOP colleagues are being blocked from further votes. On Thursday morning, Johnson came to the floor and battled with Cardin and Corker, calling their legislation that would allow Congress to offer a resolution of approval or disapproval of lifting any legislative sanctions on Iran “convoluted.”
On Thursday, Cardin blocked Johnson’s attempts to force a vote on his proposal to require a majority vote in Congress for any nuclear deal with Iran and scolded Republicans for trying to force votes on their dozens of amendments, a sharp contrast to the Democratic minority’s zero amendment submissions. Cardin’s move appeared to motivate Cotton and Rubio to take matters into their own hands and evade Cardin’s efforts to block their votes.
“These should be easy votes. If you want to vote ‘no’ vote ‘no.’ If you want to vote ‘no’ and say it’s designed to protect a compromise, do that. But we should be voting,” Cotton said.
McConnell and other GOP leaders had promised to open up the floor to amendments when they took power this year. So they’re loathe to place any limitations on offerings from senators, all of which come from Republicans.
“Not a single Democratic amendment. We think it’s time to move this bill to the United States House of Representatives,” Cardin said. “There’s a lot of frustration in the Democratic Caucus right now … as to why this bill hasn’t passed.”
When Corker said that he was trying to allow a vote on Cruz’s similar amendment, which could require a supermajority in the Senate to approve of an Iran deal, Johnson refused to acquiesce and said he will not let up on his push for another vote.
“I’m urging this body to allow a vote on my amendment to clarify what this bill and what it is not,” Johnson said. “Let’s starting voting on [our amendments]. Eventually we’ll tire. Eventually we’ll convey to the American public what this bill is and what it is not.”
The spats on Thursday followed floor drama late Wednesday, when Rubio’s attempts to force a vote on his amendment requiring Iran to recognize Israel were blocked by Cardin.
“Come here and explain to the world why you are voting against a deal that requires Israel to have a right to exist,” Rubio fumed. “Don’t tell me that we can’t even vote on it, because then what you’re saying is, you want to be protected from taking a position on it. You don’t want to take a position that you think is tough. And that I find to be unacceptable.”
On Wednesday evening, the Senate killed a proposal from Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) that would require that President Barack Obama certify that Iran is not sponsoring terrorism against Americans. That amendment drew the support of all of McConnell’s leadership team and was opposed by just eight Republicans — including three GOP Foreign Relations Committee members, far fewer than Democrats had hoped.
Between that and Johnson’s defeated treaty amendment, the Senate has processed just two of more than 60 Republican amendments this week. That may require Corker, Cardin and leaders in both parties to construct a large “vote-a-rama” that allows votes on a large number of the amendments submitted, though hopes for that on Thursday appeared to be dashed by the parliamentary warfare on the floor.
Still, McConnell made clear on Thursday morning that he supports the underlying architecture of Cardin and Corker’s proposal, which passed the Foreign Relations Committee by a whopping 19-0 margin. Though the bill would require opponents of an Iran deal to muster a veto-proof majority if they want to reject the lifting of legislative sanctions on Tehran, McConnell said he believes it is strong enough to merit passage, given that it allows Congress to express disagreement with a deal it doesn’t like.
“The American people deserve a say. They deserve a say through their members of Congress,” McConnell said. “A failed resolution of approval permitted under this bill would send an unmistakable signal about congressional opposition to lifting sanctions.”