Published December 20, 2015
Congress on Thursday sent President Obama a bill to give lawmakers the power to review and potentially reject a nuclear deal with Iran.
The House overwhelmingly passed the measure, 400-25, a reflection of lawmakers' insistence on having a say in what could be a significant international accord to get Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
Getting a deal would enhance Obama's foreign policy record, and while the GOP-led Congress doesn't want to see a nuclear-armed Iran, they are skeptical about Iranian compliance and have demanded time to review the fine points of any agreement the White House reaches with Tehran.
Presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said again Thursday that Obama would sign the bill into law.
Negotiators from the U.S. and five other nations are rushing to reach a deal with Tehran by the end of June. As the House voted, Obama met at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland with Arab leaders in hopes of convincing them that U.S. overtures to Iran would not come at the expense of commitments to their security in the region.
The Iran nuclear legislation would bar Obama from waiving congressional sanctions for at least 30 days while lawmakers examine any final deal. The bill would stipulate that if senators disapprove of the deal, Obama would lose his current power to waive certain economic penalties Congress has imposed on Iran.
The bill, which was passed last week by the Senate on a 98-1 vote, would require Congress to pass a resolution of disapproval to reject the deal, an action that Obama almost certainly would veto. Congress then would have to muster votes from two-thirds of each chamber to override the veto.
Even if Congress rejects his final nuclear deal with Tehran, however, Obama could use his executive pen to offer a hefty portion of sanctions relief on his own. He could take unilateral actions that — when coupled with European and U.N. sanctions relief — would allow a deal to be implemented.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, backed the measure, saying it would strengthen the U.S. negotiating position with Tehran.
"Instead of Iranian negotiators knowing that they can wear down the administration, this now injects Congress as an important backstop," Royce said.
New York Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking Democrat on the panel, urged bipartisan passage, saying, "Let's get this bill to the president's desk with a single voice."
At the same time, he lamented that the nuclear talks were not addressing Iran's threat to destroy Israel, Americans being held captive in the country, Iran's backing of militant groups and its involvement in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said he opposed the bill because it wasn't needed. He said Congress already has the authority to lift or retain the sanctions Congress has levied against Iran. "We have the cards. We do not have to choke this deal in the crib," Ellison said.
Also Thursday, the House considered a defense policy bill that authorizes U.S. military spending, with a final vote expected Friday. Obama has threatened to veto the House bill, which historically has garnered overwhelming bipartisan support.
House Speaker John Boehner chided Democrats for pulling their support for the bill.
"I think it's downright shameful that they are even contemplating turning back on the American troops, especially those (Democrats) on the Armed Services Committee who voted for this bill in committee."
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's office quickly responded, saying Boehner was among 160 Republicans who voted against the defense authorization bill in 2010. That was the year that the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" — the law that barred gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals from openly serving in the military — was added to the bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act.
"Regardless of whether we support the NDAA or not, we all support the brave men and women of our military who defend this country," said Washington Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. "Speaker Boehner is only implying otherwise in order to score cheap partisan points. Shame on him."
Overall, the House bill authorizes $515 billion in spending for national defense and another $89.2 billion for the emergency war-fighting fund for a total of $604.2 billion. Another $7.7 billion is mandatory defense spending that doesn't get authorized by Congress. That means the bill would provide the entire $611.9 billion desired by the president, but he still has threatened to veto it.
He and Democratic lawmakers oppose the way the committee skirted automatic spending caps imposed by Congress in 2011 by increasing defense spending by padding the emergency war-fighting fund, which is not affected by the caps. Democrats argue that the GOP wants to ignore those spending caps when it comes to funding the military, but wants to adhere to them when it comes to other domestic spending.
The same approach to authorizing defense spending was taken Thursday on the Senate side, and garnered the same opposition from Democrats.
The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 22-4 to authorize $523 billion in base funding for the Defense Department and the national security programs of the Energy Department as well as an additional $90.2 billion for the emergency war-fighting fund.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman, said the measure also included bipartisan language requiring Obama to submit a detailed proposal to Congress on his plan to close the U.S. prison for terror suspect at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer them to U.S. detention facilities. That plan would only take effect if approved by Congress, he said.
The measure would also authorize $300 million for the Ukraine government to buy weapons and equipment for its war against pro-Russian separatists.