“Now, Congress takes up the matter” are words that are ensured to send shudders down the spine, so shudder away: We’ve just entered the congressional phase of the Iran talks, with a Senate hearing next Tuesday, after which it’s up to Mitch McConnell to decide how fast and aggressively to move with the bill from Tennessee Republican Bob Corker that would bar the administration from making any changes to U.S. sanctions against Iran for 60 days while Congress reviews and debates any Iran agreement.
There are, as the Dude said, man, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous here. It’s all quite complicated. But here, it seems to me, is your cut-to-the-chase question: Is there enough good faith in this United States Senate for something to be worked out? Or is it just impossible?
One proceeds from the assumption that the Senate will do whatever it can to kill a deal. It’s a Republican Senate, by a pretty wide margin (54-46); history would suggest that these Republicans simply aren’t going to hand President Obama a win like this. It hardly matters what the details are, about what Iran can or can’t do at Fordow, about the “snapback” provisions of the sanctions, about the inspections regime, or about what precise oversight role Congress has. It’s just basically impossible to imagine that this Republican Party, after everything we’ve seen over these last six years, and this Republican Senate majority leader, who once said it was his job to make Obama a one-term president, won’t throw up every roadblock to a deal they can conjure.
Once again, we’re left separating out the factors the way scientists reduce compounds to their constituent elements in the lab. How much of this is just Obama hatred? How much is (this is a slightly different thing) the conviction—quite insane, but firmly held—that he doesn’t have the best interests of the United States at heart? How much is a genuinely paranoid, McCarthy-ish world view about the intractably evil nature of our enemy and the definitional Chamberlainism of ever thinking otherwise?
And how much is just self-interested politics, as it is bequeathed to us in its current form? Which is to say—if you are a Republican senator, you simply cannot cast a vote that can be seen as “pro-Obama” under any circumstances. You just can’t do it.
I asked in a column last week whether there would be one Republican officeholder in Washington who might say, “Hey, upon examination of the details, this looks like a decent deal with risks that are acceptable, and I’m going to support it?” It’s still a good question. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona is conceivable. He called that noxious Tom Cotton letter “not appropriate.” But Flake is pretty new to the Senate and doesn’t carry a lot of weight on these matters.
Some suggest Corker himself. Corker has this reputation, in part earned, as one of the reasonable ones. He gets articles written about him like this one, from The New York Times a couple of days ago, which limned him as a Republican of the old school, a sensible fellow who still wants to horse-trade.
And he is—but only up to a point, at which the horses return to their stalls. The most notable example here is the Dodd-Frank bill. This is all detailed at great and exacting length by Robert Kaiser in his excellent book about how financial reform became law, Act of Congress. Then, Corker talked for hours and hours with Chris Dodd about the particulars—derivatives reform, oversight of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, more. He wanted to play ball, even thought he might deliver some votes. But as time passed, it became clear to Corker that the base just wasn’t standing for it. He faced reelection in 2012. Not tough reelection—he won with 64 percent of the vote. But reelection campaigns are great excuses for senators to do nothing, and nothing is what Corker did. He withdrew from all participation with Dodd and Frank, and he ultimately voted against the bill. When it mattered, he caved to the extremists, in other words, among his colleagues and in his base. Why that means he should be getting credit for a spirit of compromise now in New York Times articles is something that, to my obtuse mind, requires further explanation.
“He’s not Tom Cotton.” Uh, okay. Wonderful. But that’s where we’ve come, celebrating a guy because he doesn’t want to start World War III. Happily, though, all is not lost. It’s far from clear that Corker or Cotton (and yes, they are different) can block a deal. There are, I’m told, three categories of senators on this question. The first is our own mullahs—no deal no how. The second is a group of mostly Democrats and independents—Virginia’s Tim Kaine, who is a close ally of the White House, and Maine’s Angus King—who basically want a deal but want to be sure that it’s good, and want to influence the shape of any legislation the Senate might pass.
The third group is senators who also basically would like to see a deal but want the Senate to serve as a backstop against a deal they see as bad. I’d put Chuck Schumer in that third camp. So when these people say they back the Corker bill, as Schumer did this week, it doesn’t mean they’re against the administration or a deal per se. Democrats aren’t going to be Obama’s problem here. A few, the ones from the deep red states, may be boxed in. But most will stick with the administration, if a deal is finalized along current terms.
I don’t think our mullahs have the numbers right now. But Obama is going to have to sell this to more parties than Tom Friedman and Steve Inskeep. He has, or should have, Friedman’s readers and Inskeep’s listeners already. The way to get someone like Corker to play ball is to sell it in Knoxville. Public opinion still influences foreign policy, as Obama knows from his Syrian experiences. Put it to work.