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For more, we are joined by Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Welcome to you, Senator.
You know, it's so unusual to see any compromise at the Capitol. How did this come about?
SEN. JEFF FLAKE, (R) Arizona: You know, it is.
A 19-0 vote, that's something that's quite odd now, but this came as a result of a lot of work between Bob Corker and Ben Cardin and a number of people on the committee. And so over the past several days, they have been working to try to make a bipartisan product. And they did so.
Well, some of our Republican colleagues had staked out some pretty tough positions on the Iran nuclear deal.
SEN. JEFF FLAKE:
They were asking for, among other things, compensation for the Iranian hostages going back to the 1970s and '80s. They were asking for Iran to recognize Israel's right to exist. What happened on that? Why did they back down?
Well, I think we all recognize that these are legitimate issues and need to be addressed at some point, but I think we came to the realization or at least agreed enough to put that off and to address that at another time and not part of this agreement.
This nuclear agreement is too important.
Well, I know you were among those who had been working to try to see something worked out. For example, you didn't sign that letter to the Iranian leaders urging them against a deal, a nuclear deal.
Why do you think it got to this point? I interviewed Secretary Kerry last week. And he said, after all, Congress — he said the Senate already has a vote on lifting any sanctions. Why was there the need for this additional role for Congress?
Well, this role is really related to the sanctions.
What this legislation does is just spell out what we will do when the final agreement is submitted, and our role comes because of the sanctions. We impose them, and only Congress can lift the sanctions. And so I think that this role really is because of the sanctions.
And the fact that it's coming now is just kind of setting up what happens after and if a final agreement is reached.
Senator, we have seen so much pushback on the part of many members of Congress about this nuclear deal, a lot of criticism. How would you describe the atmosphere now? Do you think the tension is gone? Are the suspicions still there? How do you size it up?
Well, there is still justified skepticism about Iran's ability to abide by the terms of the deal once we see the deal.
And what the ayatollah said a couple days ago just reinforces that skepticism, because he seems to have a different agreement — or — I'm sorry — a different interpretation of the agreement than we have heard.
So there's a lot of skepticism, but I think when we look at the alternatives, there are no good alternatives. And so I think it behooves us to see what's in the final agreement and take it from there.
We know or we believe there are still going to be attempts on the Senate floor to amend this, to make changes. What do you expect to happen?
Yes, the amendments, everybody kind of agreed to put off whatever amendments weren't part of the so-called management — I'm sorry — the manager's amendment.
And so we didn't entertain any amendments today on the — in the committee, but they probably will come on the floor. But my guess is, there will be a sufficient number of people who realize that we can't have those amendments if we're going to have the final deal, and, therefore, we will have votes on those amendments, but, in the end, the final bill will look pretty close to what it look like now.
So, Senator, what is your expectation, that there will be a deal that will come out of U.S.-Iran negotiations by the end of June?
You know, I think it's a — it's — I don't know. I really don't.
Every time I hope that they're making progress, you hear statements that make it think we're still a long ways off. But, frankly, I have been supportive of the negotiations, all there while being very skeptical that Iran will actually agree to it. But whether they agree to it or not, I think this has been an important process to go through.
We have got to ensure that this coalition that we have maintained, this international coalition , stays together. And if we need to impose tougher sanctions, those sanctions need to be multilateral. And so it's been important to go through this exercise, even if it were not to lead to an ultimate agreement.
Senator Jeff Flake, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we thank you.
Thanks for having me on.
And now let's turn to the NewsHour's chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, and our political reporter, Lisa Desjardins.
You have both been watching this all day long and before that.
Margaret, what happened here? I asked Senator Flake that, but you went from, 48 hours ago, the president was saying, I'm going to veto this to everybody saying, OK, we're all on board.
It became apparent to the White House that even many Democrats who support the diplomatic track thought this was a matter of congressional prerogatives. They had imposed a lot of these sanctions. They needed to have a role.
And so the White House was trying to push this watered-down version which would say, after we get a deal, you get to look at it and let your views be known. But that would be meaningless, because the president could waive those congressional sanctions.
This bill forbids him from doing that. So, his hand is stayed for 30 days. And faced with the possibility that you could have waves of defections on this bill, that would have left Secretary Kerry in an even weaker position dealing with the Iranians. They knew that.
And, also, frankly, they feel Senator Corker is someone they can do business with. You saw him very effectively corral all of these members, including two presidential candidates on that committee, to all join in unanimously. That was quite a coup.
Senator Flake was marveling to me before our interview that they had gotten all the members of the committee.
Lisa, fill us in a little bit more about what's in this agreement, this compromise.
There are a number of triggers in this bill.
A lot of our viewers will hear 30 days, 10 days. Margaret was talking about this. But, basically, if you want to talk big picture here, this deal gives Congress just under two months to react to an Iranian deal it doesn't like. They have two months to try and basically oppose it.
Now, what's important here — and Margaret also mentioned this — is the — you heard Jeff Flake say in the interview, only Congress can roll back these congressional sanctions. Only Congress can roll them back permanently. The president has power under the sanction law to roll them back temporarily.
Now, what this deal does, it freezes that. It says, during this period of about two months, when Congress is reviewing the deal, the president cannot roll back these sanctions. Iran wants him to. This says, no, you can't do it. That's an important power for Congress. It gives them the room to maneuver.
Ultimately, though, if Congress does get disapprove of a deal, they will need a supermajority to block it.
So, Margaret, does this mean the White House has given up some of its prerogative to Congress?
You know, yes and no. In other words, the president — a lot of the sanctions that Iran is most upset about were imposed by Treasury. They have to do with Iran's access to the international banking system. Congress had nothing to do with that.
This bill doesn't prevent the president from rolling those back right away. It doesn't prevent the E.U. from rolling them back. You heard Zarif talk about them. It doesn't say anything, as I understand it, about what the White House's position has to be at the U.N. about U.N. sanctions.
And I think the one thing it does, it does somewhat tie Secretary Kerry's hands. But he can now say to Zarif, to his counterpart, look, the alternative was the prospect of a hugely disorderly process, with members, Republicans all the time coming up with new sanctions rules. We have got a game plan now, a blueprint, and, you know, we're going to — if you want a good deal and you want to satisfy the Congress, you might have to give a little more on centrifuges.
So the White House doesn't buy that argument. They would have rather had nothing, but you heard some Democrats making that point today.
Now, Lisa, it's clear the president did some backing down on — or the White House did. But there was also some backing down on the part of the Republicans.
And talking to Republicans as this vote was coming to the committee, it was fascinating, Judy, because they kept saying to me, this is a difficult decision, but a little bit of what Jeff Flake said, we felt we had no other option, because, honestly, the president could waive these sanctions without us if we did nothing.
But the White House was making that argument all along. It wasn't sticking.
That's the problem. That's it.
And they felt like this was their only chance to have a choice. It doesn't mean that they can get the votes they need if they ultimately oppose an Iran sanctions deal. They will need 67 votes in the Senate. Could get them, maybe not. But they like this because, Judy, if they can get 67 votes, that means it's a bad deal.
But it sounds like — I mean, for both of you, it sounds like Senator Corker had to do some real talking and I don't know, arm-twisting? What do you want to call it?
It was arm-twisting, but also being incredibly reasonable.
You had some of at the hearing today — every single person he spoke to, he said, oh, thank you so much for your input on this. It's been so valuable.
And he's just been very cool and measured about it. He said, I'm just a businessman. I knew nothing about Iran.
One interesting distinction — he's hornswoggled everybody, but he — there is an interesting distinction here.
It's not like a treaty, where the burden is on the White House. You know, when you send up a real international treaty, the Senate can sit on it for years. And you have to get 60 senators willing to bring it.
Here, as one Republican senator very upset about it was complaining, this isn't like a treaty. We have got 30 days to make up our mind, and, otherwise, if we don't disapprove of it, the president can just roll right on by us.
So, the White House — it sounds like a technical timing issue, but it actually is quite important.
But — and it sounds like, at the same time, it does give Secretary Kerry some wiggle room in the negotiating?
Both sides got something out of this.
Now, the White House really wanted nothing, but at least they did get their wiggle room. They got a shorter timeline. And the White House, importantly, got a time frame for a congressional reaction. So, if Congress disapproves, there's a veto back and forth. That could stay open forever.
This says, you only have this amount of time to rule — to ring in on this deal. Also, Republicans, Judy, got a seat at the table now. They didn't have a seat at the negotiating table. It's not a full seat, but they do have a seat. And I think perhaps the American people got a win for statesmanship, honestly, out of this.
But it's a seat in the back of the room, and it's no — you know, no potshots being thrown from the sidelines.
It's not the expensive seats.
At least, that's what the White House thinks this deal means, though I think when you were talking to Senator Flake, it was pretty clear on the floor, it's probably not going to be quite as orderly as it was today.
And it has to be a weight off the shoulders of Secretary Kerry.
Lisa knows that is ahead.
I predict this goes through fast. Corker and Cardin have made a deal. They will block all amendments.
All right. We heard it here.
Lisa Desjardins, Margaret Warner, we thank you.
Always a pleasure.
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