Senate Democrats rallied behind President Obama Thursday, successfully filibustering to preserve the deal he and international leaders struck to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, as House Speaker John A. Boehner threatened to sue the president to try and halt it.
With the Senate vote clearing the way for the White House to begin the process of lifting sanctions on the Islamic republic next week, House Republicans were attempting a last-ditch effort to derail the deal, voting to declare the president broke the law by not submitting all of the Iran agreement to Congress for review. Mr. Boehner, after a court victory Wednesday on another major legislative-executive clash, raised the prospect of a new lawsuit.
But Senate Republicans have rejected that line of attack, and the president is expected to use Thursday’s successful filibuster as justification for lifting the sanctions.
“This vote is a victory for diplomacy, for American national security, and for the safety and security of the world,” the president said in a statement after the Senate vote.
Opponents disagreed, predicting the deal, which gives Iran access to tens of billions of dollars, allows it to build up its conventional forces, lets it continue enriching uranium and sets the stage for an arms race in the Middle East — and eventually for war.
“A deal that puts the Iranian regime and its terrorist allies one turn of a screwdriver away from a nuclear weapon and a means of delivering it across the oceans makes war more likely,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, president pro tempore of the Senate.
GOP leaders said they’ll hold a revote next week, but barring any changes from public pressure back home over the weekend, the outcome will be the same.
Only 42 senators voted to back Mr. Obama, while four Democrats joined all 54 Republicans in the chamber in opposing the deal — two shy of the number needed to surmount the filibuster.
Congress was acting under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, signed into law earlier this year, which required Mr. Obama to submit any deal with Iran to Capitol Hill. Lawmakers had 60 days to review it and either approve it, take no action or disapprove of it.
Unless Congress disapproved of the deal within the 60-day period, Mr. Obama is free to lift the crippling sanctions the U.S. imposed on Iran and to unfreeze Iranian money held in foreign banks. The president says that 60-day period is up Sept. 17.
House Republicans this week argued that Mr. Obama is breaking the law and the 60-day clock never started because the president didn’t actually submit the entire deal to Congress. They point to several side-agreements Iran signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency governing how much access inspectors will have to Iran’s nuclear sites.
The IAEA insists its agreements are private and can’t be submitted to Congress, but Republicans say the Nuclear Review Act doesn’t allow for any exceptions, so withholding the documents — which they say are critical to evaluating Iran’s potential compliance — breaks the law.
The House voted along party lines Thursday to officially declare the president in violation of the law.
Asked if going to court was on the table, Mr. Boehner said “that is an option that is very possible.” The comment came a day after Mr. Boehner scored a legal victory against the president when a judge ruled that the House has legal standing to sue Mr. Obama over his implementation of his signature health care law.
On Friday the House will vote on two other measures: One would direct the president not to lift sanctions until January at the earliest, and the other would officially approve the Iran deal — Republicans intend for that to fail.
Mr. Obama said Thursday that if Congress didn’t back him, he would have no option to stop Iran’s program other than to strike at its nuclear facilities.
“We can either prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through diplomacy or be left with a form of war,” the president said in answering questions about the deal on Quora.com. “Those are the options. As commander in chief, I have not shied away from using force when necessary, but I cannot in good conscience place the burden of war on our men and women in uniform without testing a diplomatic agreement that achieves a better result.”
Intelligence officials say Iran is just a few months away from building a nuclear bomb. But all sides disagree on how long the deal Mr. Obama and other world leaders struck will delay that progress. Supporters said it halts Iran’s plans for a decade or more, while opponents said Iran can’t be trusted to live up to its agreements.
The House Armed Services Committee said it expected Iran to step up its support for anti-American activities throughout the world, which Republicans predicted would get an infusion of cash from the billions of dollars freed up by the deal.
Thursday’s Senate vote was a major victory for Mr. Obama and his top lieutenants in Congress, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who have corralled enough supporters to ensure Mr. Obama’s moves couldn’t be stopped.
“This is historic; this is grand; this is visionary,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “This is about peace.”
But many Democrats, worried about the deal’s unpopularity back home, also sought to put some political distance between themselves and Mr. Obama, proposing a number of extra steps Congress should take to get tougher on Iran.
Some have called for new security guarantees for Israel, while others have said they want to create so-called “snapback sanctions” that will automatically go into place should Iran be deemed in violation of its obligations under the deal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, called those “born-again Iran bashing,” and doubted voters back home will let Iran deal supporters off the hook. Indeed, Republican and allied campaign groups fired off a barrage of attacks against Democrats who supported the deal Thursday.
Mr. McConnell said he wouldn’t give floor time to any of the get-tough proposals unless Democrats prove they already have support of two-thirds of the Senate, or enough to overcome a possible presidential veto.
Mr. McConnell also said since the deal Mr. Obama struck wasn’t a treaty, the next president won’t be bound by it — and he predicted a Republican in the White House might reimpose sanctions.
“Foreign policy will be a big issue going into 2016, and this agreement is a metaphor for all of the mistakes this president has named. You name the area of the world, and you’ll see the results,” he said.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said this week he won’t entertain any more deals with the U.S. over his nuclear program, that America remains the “Great Satan,” and predicted Israel won’t exist in 25 years.
Iranian officials also said Thursday they will not allow their secret deals with the IAEA to become public.