Sen. Marco Rubio and top Obama administration officials locked horns on Wednesday in a Senate hearing on the president’s proposal for new war powers to fight against Islamic State militants.
Rubio tied the request to President Barack Obama’s approach to dealing with Iran, and questioned administration officials about to what extent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program were coloring U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria.
Democrats worry about a full-scale U.S. ground war in the Mideast, while Republicans do not want Obama’s hands tied in terms of military action, and have reservations about restrictions – such as a ban on “enduring” use of U.S. ground troops – in the war powers proposal.
At the same time, Republicans, and some Democrats, are insisting on the ability of Congress to have a say in the final nuclear deal with Iran.
The war powers legislation, debated in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, will set up the first war vote in Congress in 13 years.
"I believe that much of our strategy with regards to ISIS is being driven by a desire not to upset Iran so they don't walk away from the negotiating table on the deal that you are working on," Rubio, a Florida Republican, said during the hearing by the Committee, of which he is a member. "Tell me why I am wrong."
In what published reports described as a tense back-and-forth, Secretary of State John Kerry responded: "The facts completely contradict that."
"They want us to destroy ISIS,” Kerry said, referring to Iran. “They want to destroy ISIS. ISIS is a threat to them. It is a threat to the region. I think you are misreading it if you think there is not a mutual interest."
"I think this has been a misread by a lot of people on the Hill, to be honest with you,” Kerry said.
“There is no grand bargain being discussed here in the context of this negotiation. This is about nuclear-weapon potential. That's it. It is really almost insulting that the presumption up here is that we are going to negotiate something that allows them to get a nuclear weapon."
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter also shot back at Rubio when he brought up Iran and its influence in the president’s policies in Iraq and Syria.
Sen. Robert Menendez, who is from New Jersey and the committee’s ranking Democrat, joined others in his party who are concerned about a drawn out U.S. ground combat role.
“What I think Democrats are not willing to do is give this or any other president an open-ended authorization or a blank check,” Menendez said at the hearing. “Clearly, there’s a need to define exactly what would be allowed.”
Meanwhile, Rubio has defended his position in a letter that 47 Republicans in the Senate sent to the Iranian government warning that unless Congress approved it, any nuclear deal they cut with Obama could expire the minute he leaves office.
Critics have said the letter undermines the authority of U.S. officials in the nuclear talks with Iran. Rubio said he would sign the letter all over again and does not regret taking part in it.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.