The attempt by the Senate — bipartisan in nature — to assert its jurisdiction has taken a couple of body blows in the last twenty-four hours. First, the main Democratic sponsor of the bill just got indicted, and stepped down from the Foreign Relations Committee. Robert Menendez pled not guilty today, but agreed to pull out of his committee assignment while fighting corruption charges:
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez struck a defiant tone on Thursday after he was arraigned on federal corruption charges, telling reporters outside a federal courthouse in New Jersey that he’s “confident” the allegations against him will be “proven false.”
“For nearly three years, the Justice Department has pursued allegations based on smears launched by political opponents trying to silence me,” Menendez said. “Now they have laid out their case. We will finally an opportunity to respond on the record, in court, with the facts.” …
On Wednesday, Menendez said Justice Department investigators “don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator and my friendship into something that is improper.”
“They are dead wrong and I am confident that they will be proven so,” he added.
Menendez has given no sign that he plans to step down, but he has voluntarily relinquished his post as the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while the investigation runs its course.
Menendez has an initial court date in mid-July, just about the time that the Senate would normally peruse any agreement with Iran that John Kerry and Barack Obama produce. Normally, that is, if Obama and Kerry gave it the force of treaty. Instead, they want to commit the US to a 15-year agreement on their own word, which technically means any subsequent administration can simply refuse to continue it without requiring a repeal from Congress. It’s the EO of foreign policy, if one wants to use that analogy.
Prior to his departure from the Foreign Relations committee, Menendez had worked on a Senate bill with Bob Corker (R-TN) to force Obama to bring the agreement to Congress. Corker says that Menendez’ departure won’t stop that progress, Politico reports:
Even as President Barack Obama warned Congress not to interfere with a burgeoning nuclear deal with Iran, Republican leaders showed no signs of backing away from legislation that could scuttle the agreement.
GOP lawmakers were particularly displeased that Iran could get swift relief from sanctions if Tehran follows through on the agreement. …
Shortly after the preliminary framework of a deal was announced, Obama put it straight to the GOP-controlled Congress: If Capitol Hill kills a nuclear deal with Iran, the United States will be blamed.
Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other Republicans don’t seem to have been dissuaded. Corker’s bill would allow Congress to vote to approve or reject the nuclear framework with Iran, and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of Corker’s leadership, said congressional review and buy-in of the deal will be “critical.”
This brings us to the second body blow, which was the announcement of the framework for an eventual agreement on a deal, rather than a deal itself. Nothing’s agreed until everything’s agreed, both the US and Iran stated today, but the momentum has shifted. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill might have felt brave enough to demand consultation before any diplomatic breakthrough, but aside from Menendez, that might be difficult to sustain — and Corker will need at least 67 votes to make this bill work. Republicans can pass it any time and might get a few crossovers to support it, but can Corker get and keep 13 Democrats? If not, Obama simply vetoes the bill, and we’re back to square one.
Actually, though, the clock is just reset for another 90 days. In order to really make this work, Obama has to get an actual deal with the Iranians, one with enough political cover for him to wave his little paper and declare peace in our time. He has the momentum, but that could change if the deal starts falling apart. That may already have begun. Allahpundit noted that Iranian FM Javad Zarif skewered the US talking points, but later he balked at the suggestion from Kerry and Obama that the sanctions would be gradually removed. Kerry and Obama are lying about that point, Zarif wrote on Twitter:
Iran/5+1 Statement: "US will cease the application of ALL nuclear-related secondary economic and financial sanctions." Is this gradual?
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) April 2, 2015
Iran/P5+1 Statement: "The EU will TERMINATE the implementation of ALL nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions". How about this?
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) April 2, 2015
Zarif also bragged about keeping Fordow open, a facility that the White House claimed had no legitimately peaceful use:
On Thursday evening, Zarif told reporters the latest agreement allows Iran to keep operating its nuclear program.
“None of those measures” that will move to scale back Iran’s program “include closing any of our facilities,” Zarif said. “We will continue enriching; we will continue research and development.”
“Our heavy water reactor will be modernized and we will continue the Fordow facility,” Zarif said. “We will have centrifuges installed in Fordow, but not enriching.”
The move to allow Iran to keep centrifuges at Fordow, a controversial onetime military site, has elicited concern that Tehran could ramp up its nuclear work with ease.
What peaceful use is there for a heavy-water reactor, by the way?
This is the risk for the White House. If Iran continues undermining Obama’s messaging on this deal, it will shift the momentum back to the Senate. Corker’s making sure he’s ready if that happens.