U.S. Congress Set to Debate Iran, but Deal's Already Sealed

The only remaining question is whether Senate Democrats choose to filibuster the resolution, blocking it from passing and preventing Obama from having to use his veto pen.

James Arkin, Real Clear Politics
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).Credit: Reuters
James Arkin, Real Clear Politics

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.com

After months of debate within and outside the halls of Congress and intense lobbying from supporters and opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement, lawmakers are set to officially begin debating resolutions to disapprove of the agreement Wednesday. But while both chambers are dedicating several days and long hours to the historic agreement, the arguments are unlikely to have any practical impact on the deal’s outcome.

The White House confirmed in an official statement Tuesday that President Obama would veto any resolution disapproving of the agreement, which the administration negotiated along with Iran and five other nations. Senate Democrats clinched enough support last week to sustain that veto, meaning the deal will be implemented. In the House, there are enough opponents to pass a resolution of disapproval, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said last month she was confident House Democrats would have the support to sustain a veto in the lower chamber as well.

The only remaining question is whether Democrats in the Senate choose to filibuster the resolution, blocking it from passing and preventing Obama from having to use that veto pen. But with 42 senators supporting the agreement—one more than necessary to pull off a filibuster—it seems likely that Democrats can unite around blocking the agreement. This means that while lawmakers may give up significant floor time to debating the merits of the deal, their minds are already made up.

In the Senate, the debate will deviate from common practices. Often when a senator speaks on the floor, he or she is the only lawmaker present apart from the presiding officer. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell requested that on Wednesday, committee chairmen hold off hearings and markups and that all senators be present and in their seats, listening and participating in the debate. It’s extremely rare to see all 100 senators actively participating in a debate over any legislation.

“I think this issue's of such magnitude that it's my hope we will not be having committee meetings going on at the same time, that we'll actually have a debate that rises to the occasion that this seems to require,” McConnell said in a press conference last month.

Though this session will begin Wednesday, it’s possible it could bleed all the way into next week, given procedural timings. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip, said absent any sort of agreement, the cloture vote—the one that would determine whether Democrats filibuster the resolution—would likely occur early next week. Cornyn defended the practice of debating the issue on the floor, even though it’s been thoroughly dissected outside Congress.

“That’s what we do,” Cornyn said. “I don’t think we can just sort of say we’re going to dispense with the debate that the American public deserves and hold people accountable. It think there’s nothing that some people would like more than to just sweep this under the rug and pretend like it never happened, and we can’t let that happen.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut was on the same side in terms of debating the issue. Though Murphy supports the deal and hopes to filibuster the resolution, he said the production on the floor was beneficial to the agreement.

“There are a handful of debates that the history books go back and review. This is one of them,” Murphy told RCP. “Whether we like it or not, there are people who actually pay attention to what we say on the Senate floor when it comes to major, weighty international issues. So I think it’s important for us to have this debate, not just for all of us to make our arguments clear to our constituents, but also for people to look back and see who was right and who was wrong.”

While the Senate debate may last into next week, the House is set to begin debate Wednesday and vote on the resolution Friday, the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Per a rule determined by the Rules Committee Tuesday evening, there will be 11 hours of debate over the course of the week—a significantly larger time frame than most legislation. That debate will be split up among five committees—Foreign Affairs, Oversight and Government Reform, Judiciary, Ways and Means and Financial Services.

Like McConnell, Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions said the gravity of the Iran agreement necessitated an in-depth, lengthy floor process.

“Given the historical significance of this vote and the potential consequences of the deal, members on both sides of the aisle should have every opportunity for robust debate—whether they support the deal or not—and we believe the rule provides for this,” he said in a statement.

The extended debate isn’t without critics, however. New York Rep. Steve Israel, who leads the messaging operation for House Democrats but is a staunch opponent of the agreement, criticized the long debate process as ineffective.

“I think, regrettably, and I say this as a leading opponent of the deal, the Republicans have made a political decision that the more they talk about this, the better the politics may be for them,” Israel told RCP. “I think that actually does a disservice to supporters and friends of Israel, but they’ve made a decision that they want to squeeze the sponge on this for as long as they can and derive whatever political benefit they can, and that includes 10 hours of debate.”

Israel did add, however, that every member of Congress should have the opportunity to speak on the floor about his or her position, and that he reserved the right to speak out against the agreement.

While the debate gives lawmakers an opportunity to state where they stand on the deal—something the vast majority has already done through both written statements and speeches—it won’t have any effect the outcome. If Democrats in the Senate filibuster, the deal will have successfully survived Congress. If they don’t, it may take a couple weeks longer and force Obama to issue his fifth veto, but the end result will be the same.

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