Why did senators go around the president on Iran?

What prompted 47 Republican senators to send a letter to the leaders of Iran voicing concern about a potential nuclear deal made without congressional approval? Judy Woodruff gets two views on the GOP showdown with the White House from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Ct.

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    Well, he points out that the vast majority of international agreements take effect without congressional approval. And we have looked at it. And it's something like 95 percent.

    So this is really not different at all, is it, from what's normal?


    Well, it's pretty different.

    This is — if you look at most consequential agreements — I'm talking nuclear arms — and this is a nuclear arms deal that has tremendous ramifications, not only for the region, but for the United States and the world — this has huge impacts and consequences, all of which I think need to be very carefully contemplated.

    And the concern that many of us as members of Congress have is that the administration may be entering into a bad deal. And we think it's important that there be the voice of the Senate be heard in that process. Now, there is a bill that was introduced up here that I think has 65 co-sponsors that would require a vote by the Senate if any deal is entered into by the administration.

    And so there's Democrat support for that as well. I think it's important that, as a constitutional prerogative, something that if you look through the major deals in history — and, again, I'm talking 22, sometimes, we have had nuclear arms agreements — those have been subject to Senate ratification.


    Let me ask you about a comment by your fellow Republican senator, Susan Collins, who, along with several other Republicans, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, declined to sign this letter.

    Senator Collins said she didn't think the ayatollah was going to listen or pay attention to a letter from senators. She thinks it's more appropriate to say this to the president directly.


    Well, and, look, we have colleagues that are in slightly different places on this.

    Senator Corker, of course, is the one who is negotiating with Democrats on the legislation, which, by the way, the president has threatened to veto, the legislation that would require that Congress — this be subjected to a vote in the Congress.

    But I think the important thing in all this is that the administration is not disputing the facts of the letter. Nobody is coming out and saying that the letter is factually wrong. And the point that it makes is, is that this deal isn't binding on future administrations. And there are laws. Congress imposed the sanctions. Congress would have to lift the sanctions. That takes congressional action.

    And so if you don't have that congressional action, you have got a deal basically that is agreed — agreed to for as long as this president is in office. And I think that's the point that people across the negotiating table probably need to understand.


    But, just quickly, the other point we're hearing from senators is that this deal, if they are able to negotiate it, is the best chance to work something out with Iran, and to torpedo this deal means Iran can build up its nuclear program.


    Well, I'm not — I don't take that as a premise.

    Frankly, I think that a deal — a bad deal allows them to continue to enrich, and it's just a question of when. It's not a matter of with — if. And I think what we're trying to prevent is a deal that would allow them to have a nuclear capability in the first place and certainly one that has a sunset on it, which this deal does.

    So, you know, we think this is a — we're headed in the wrong direction, we're headed toward a bad deal. And, frankly, I think a lot of people — and the president himself has said that no deal is better than a bad deal.


    Senator John Thune of South Dakota, we thank you for talking with us.


    Nice to be with you. Thanks, Judy.


    Now for the Democrats' view, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy.

    Senator, thank you for talking with us.

    What we heard from Senator Thune is that it — the reason it's so important to have congressional approval for this nuclear deal is that it is nuclear weapons and it has ramifications for an entire important region of the world.

    SEN. CHRIS MURPHY, (D) Connecticut: Well, this is an important as it gets. We're talking about preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and perhaps stopping the entire Middle East from becoming a nuclear region.

    And so all of us are taking this very seriously. But that's why many of us are so concerned about these ongoing efforts to undermine the negotiations which many of us believe will ultimately get to where we all want to get to, which is an Iran that is divorced from any nuclear ambitions.

    There will be a time and a place for Congress to weigh in. But that time and place is after a deal is agreed upon. Congress will always have the ability to defund that deal, to cancel it out through legislation, but let's not undermine negotiations, because all of us agree that the better path to stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is a negotiated settlement, rather than a military option, which would be perhaps our only option should these negotiations fail.


    As you know, they make the point that we're talking about a country that has state-sponsored terrorism, a country that has been a direct threat to the United States, all the more reason, they say, why it shouldn't be just an executive agreement between the president and another country.


    Well, we have a long history of this presidency of ours being able to enter into executive agreements, literally hundreds and hundreds of them over the course of our country's history.

    And Congress always has the ability to weigh in on that agreement. And so, again, I think the point that they're making is not lost on many of us, that Congress should have a say. But what the Republicans are doing here is trying to undermine the negotiations, trying to stop them in their tracks before a final product is even completed.

    That is largely unprecedented in the history of this country. And I just think about what would have been said of Democrats if, in the lead-up to the Iraq War, we had sent a letter to Saddam Hussein drawing issue with the way in which our president was conducting negotiations over the future of their mass — weapons of mass destruction programs.

    We would have been derided universally, and deservedly so. So, I think this is a double standard that Republicans have. And there will be a time and place for us to talk about this agreement. But why undermine negotiations, when you will have a chance, as the United States Congress, to weigh in on this deal once the negotiations are finished?


    Well, Senator, that goes to the other point they're making, is that since a deal that doesn't have a congressional approval can be undone by the next president, can be changed by the next Congress, it doesn't have the force of a treaty, of something that is approved by the Congress.


    Well, I think it's important to note, although we don't know what the confines of this agreement are, that it's going to look very different than treaties.

    Treaties bind two nations to substantially similar sets of obligations. This is very different, in that the vast majority of obligations in this treaty are going to be on Iran. Our obligation will simply be to rescind at the outset, temporarily, a handful of sanctions that we have imposed.

    So, it doesn't, by anyone's estimation, rise to the level of a treaty obligation. And this idea that the next president would walk away from an agreement that stops Iran from getting a nuclear weapon in a verifiable way is ridiculous. No president, Republican or Democrat, is going to walk away from that agreement if it's working.

    And it is not true that executive agreements just automatically expire at the end of that president's term. They continue on. And I think that you would be compromising literally hundreds of executive agreements that we live by today by the suggestion that, as soon as one president is out of office, they just disappear into thin air.


    Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, we thank you for talking with us.


    Thanks, Judy.


    And for a different take on Iran, tomorrow night on the NewsHour, special correspondent Jane Arraf's interview with a key ally of the United States against the Islamic State group.

    He is the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani. The leader tells Arraf he's not getting enough weapons from the U.S. and he welcomes Iran's help.

  • PRESIDENT MASOUD BARZANI, Kurdish Regional Government, Iraq (through interpreter):

    We have a principle. Wherever we can strike I.S., we are not going to hold back.

    And whoever will take part and help us attack I.S., we will thank them. Right now, I don't share that concern, if you are asking me about helping to fight and defeat I.S. What happens after that, we can't predict.