Democratic leaders claimed victory Tuesday as more lawmakers announced their support for President Obama’s deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, ensuring he will prevail when Congress votes later this month.
“This agreement will stand,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said as three more Senate Democrats threw their support behind the deal, saying it was better than no agreement at all.
With victory nearly at hand for the White House, both supporters and opponents turned their attention to the next steps. Mr. Obama’s backers said they’ll carefully watch to see if Iran backslides on its commitments, and will be prepared to get tough.
Meanwhile, 15 GOP governors fired off a letter Tuesday vowing to defy the administration and keep their own state-level Iran sanctions in place, hoping to deal at least a minor blow to the Islamic republic.
“These state-level sanctions are critically important and must be maintained,” the governors wrote.
The Senate officially began debating the Iran bill Tuesday afternoon, but Republicans are already bracing for an embarrassing failure now that 41 members of the Democratic Caucus have publicly backed Mr. Obama. That would be enough to sustain a filibuster, cutting debate short and preventing the president from even having to use his veto to preserve the deal.
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All 54 Senate Republicans are expected to vote to overturn the nuclear deal, joined by four Democrats. But under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which Mr. Obama and Congress agreed to earlier this year, both chambers would need to muster a two-thirds vote — enough to overcome an Obama veto — in order to scuttle the deal.
Under the agreement, Iran would curtail — though not end — its nuclear-enrichment activities and open facilities up for international inspections designed to try to sniff out whether the regime is pursuing a nuclear weapon.
In exchange, the U.S. and international partners would lift crippling economic sanctions and unfreeze tens of billions of dollars worth of Iranian money locked in foreign banks, allowing the regime to recover that money for its own purposes.
Mr. Obama argues that the deal will prevent Iran from creating a nuclear weapon for years, and says the international partners were eager to strike a deal, making it impossible for the U.S. to hold out for more concessions.
Opponents, however, say Iran will keep thousands of centrifuges, allowing its program to simmer, and fear the infusion of cash will help Iran fund terrorism and build a formidable conventional army.
“This debate should not be about a president who will leave office in 16 months. It should be about where out country will be in 16 years,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
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He has asked senators to sit at their desks during this week’s debate — a rare move that underscores the weightiness of the vote.
The three Senate Democrats who announced support for the deal Tuesday morning were Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
Mr. Blumenthal called the agreement “better than no deal at all,” while Mr. Peters said he was only “reluctantly” backing it, and still had “serious reservations.”
Mr. Wyden, meanwhile, said he was swayed by the fact that other countries appear ready to accept the deal, so the U.S.’ opposition would be wasted. He also said he has faith in the U.S. and other countries to police the deal and address any Iranian backsliding.
“We have agreements with our allies to take the strongest possible actions against Iran if it does not fully live up to its end of this deal,” Mr. Wyden said.
Meanwhile Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, announced his opposition, becoming the fourth Senate Democrat to break with Mr. Obama.
Mr. Manchin said he had wanted to give diplomacy a chance to work, but said the final agreement falls short of the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for the next 15 years, and would also give Iran access to tens of billions of dollars it can use to foster terrorism.
He said he’s certain Iran will backslide, and he doesn’t believe Mr. Obama will be able to reassemble the world coalition to stop Iran at that point.
Mr. Reid, however, described those kinds of objections as unrealistic given the state of international negotiations and the options that the U.S. actually had.
“In the real world, this really is the best option to keep Iran from a nuclear bomb,” the senator said.
Some Republicans questioned why Congress is poised to vote at all at this point.
Rep. Peter J. Roskam, Illinois Republican, filed a motion objecting that the administration hasn’t sent up all of the details of the Iran agreement, thus violating the agreement review act. He and other lawmakers say the administration must provide the secret side-agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
With Mr. Obama’s victory assured at the national level, Republicans are looking to the states to try to make an impact. GOP officials in five states announced the launch of Defund Iran, a November 2016 ballot movement that aims to prevent taxpayer dollars from flowing to companies that do business with Iran.
“Our organization — Defund Iran — will take this fight to the voters and give them an opportunity to vote to put in their state constitutions the principle that tax dollars should never be invested in or spent with corporations doing business with State Sponsors of Terrorism,” wrote former Missouri state treasurer Sarah Steelman, one of the leaders of the movement.
Fifteen GOP governors, meanwhile, said they won’t lift sanctions that already are in place in their states preventing them from investing in Iran or doing business with Iranian interests. The Obama administration committed to Iran that it would encourage states to lift their sanctions, but because the deal isn’t considered a treaty, the governors said they cannot be forced to comply.
Some Republicans insist the deal should be a treaty, which would require ratification by a two-thirds affirmative vote in the Senate. Given the current levels of support, it would be rejected.
But senators have already decided the agreement isn’t a treaty.
On Tuesday, former Vice President Dick Cheney said the GOP goofed on that.
“I think it was a serious procedural mistake,” Mr. Cheney said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute.
In extensive remarks, he said the Iran deal caves on many of the promises the administration made when it entered into the negotiations.
Mr. Cheney took particular aim at Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who he said had at first insisted Iran detail its past nuclear history in order to aid new inspections, only to relinquish that demand in the final deal. Mr. Cheney said without information on what Iran did in the past, it is impossible to accurately monitor its current activities.
Mr. Cheney also defended the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, saying it helped stem nuclear proliferation, chiefly by frightening other countries into giving up or slowing their own programs.
He said then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi contacted the U.S. soon after the Iraq invasion and said he wanted to give up his nuclear program.
“He had watched the fate we delivered to Saddam, and he didn’t want to be next,” Mr. Cheney said.
And he said there is “evidence” that Iran itself had halted its own programs in the wake of the 2003 invasion, also fearful of U.S. military power.