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Senators explain why Congress should have its say on Iran deal

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    In a rare, near-unanimous and bipartisan vote, the Senate declared it would have its say in ongoing nuclear talks with Iran.

    The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act passed 98-1. It would give Congress up to 52 days to review any proposed nuclear agreement with Iran. During that time, the president could not reduce imposed sanctions. And Congress could vote, up or down, on any proposed agreement. A two-thirds vote would be needed to override any resulting presidential veto.

    I spoke earlier with two senators who joined in the overwhelming support for the measure.

    We begin with Republican John Thune of South Dakota.

    Sen. Thune, thank you for joining us.

    So why did Congress feel it had to have its say today?

  • SEN. JOHN THUNE, R-S.D.:

    Well, I think there’s a concern among the American people, Gwen. And it needs to be voiced through their representatives in Congress about an Iranian nuclear agreement that the administration is in the process of negotiating.

    I think there’s — this has huge national security consequences, not only for our allies in the region, but for the United States. And so the Congress in the legislation that we passed today, and it was an overwhelming vote, I think went on the record expressing their desire to be a part of this process and have an opportunity to at least review and approve or disapprove whatever agreement the administration negotiates.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You’re right; that was an overwhelming vote. But even though only one person voted against the final bill, several of your colleagues, Senator Rubio, Senator Cruz, Senator Cotton, they had all been a little bit concerned about seeming to give congressional — Congress’ blessing to any deal. How did you overcome those concerns?

  • SEN. JOHN THUNE:

    Right.

    Well, I think, in the end, what they — their argument was that, yes, you don’t have Congress on the record in any way blessing this thing. But in the end, it’s going to take basically 67 votes in the Congress for anything that the president — or I should say it’s going to take 34 to approve, but it’s going to take 67 votes to disapprove anything that the administration negotiates.

    And the one thing that the legislation does — and I think this was probably the most compelling argument in support of getting people on board with this — at least we have an opportunity to review it. We get 30 days. It will be an opportunity to educate the American people about the particulars, the details of this thing and what it means.

    And I think that was probably the most compelling argument in favor of moving forward with this legislation, which, by the way, was negotiated really by Bob Corker, and had 65 or 64 co-sponsors when it started out. So this started out with a broad bipartisan support. The president had indicated that he would veto it. And he only came along reluctantly when it became clear that this thing was going to pass.

    So, I think that this is an important step forward in ensuring that the American people and members of Congress have an opportunity to debate, review and act ultimately on whatever deal the administration negotiates.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But couldn’t the Congress debate — have debated, reviewed and acted on this even without — no matter what happened with this deal? Couldn’t Congress have done this any time?

  • SEN. JOHN THUNE:

    Well, they could, but there was no guarantee that we would have had the opportunity to see it.

    This requires the administration to present it and, you know, in all of its details and line by line. And so Congress and the American people are going to have a chance to see it. Now, arguably, there are certain people probably that would have had a chance to see it anyway, but for the entire Congress, and, by virtue of that, the American people to have an opportunity to review this deal, it took a process like this. And I think that’s why, in the end, you know, that’s what won it out.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Early on in this, one of the objections from the White House and from some Democrats was that Congress was going to hurt the deal still being negotiated, still being firmed up in Geneva, Vienna, wherever they are this week, and that it would hurt the overall negotiations.

    Why won’t this?

  • SEN. JOHN THUNE:

    I think, in the end, it gives — it gives additional leverage to the administration, because now the Iranians know, the other parties know, our allies know that this is something that Congress is at least going to weigh in on.

    And I think that’s another threshold that, as they’re negotiating, they have to think about. For example, I had an amendment that ultimately didn’t get voted on that would have required the State Department to investigate whether or not the IAEA really had the ability under the agreement to take a look at these military sites to see if the Iranians were in compliance.

    And things like that, I think, are really important to the American people. Things like that, I think, are really important to individual members of Congress. And I think the administration should use that to their advantage when they’re negotiating this deal.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Except your amendment didn’t get voted on. A lot of other amendments didn’t get voted on. They were shut down by the Senate majority leader. Isn’t this the thing Republicans used to complain that Harry Reid did all the time?

  • JOHN THUNE:

    Well, it did — the Democrats had no interest in helping on this because they didn’t have any amendments they offered. They wanted to see the bill move forward without amendment.

    We had a number of members on our side who did want to offer amendments. The Democrats objected and blocked those. In the end, we wanted to get the bill passed. And, yes, it would have been nice to have had a debate about amendments. Most of those amendments ultimately would have been defeated. It would have been nice to think that we could have even strengthened the bill before it passed.

    But if I’m the White House, I look at this entire process and say, this is good for us because this gives us, as we negotiate, a stronger hand. And I think in the end that enables them, if they’re willing to use that, to get a better deal.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, thank you very much.

  • SEN. JOHN THUNE:

    Thanks, Gwen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I also spoke with Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.

    Sen. Kaine, thank you for joining us.

    It’s so unusual to see such an overwhelming bipartisan agreement. How significant was this vote today?

  • SEN. TIM KAINE, D-Va.:

    It was a huge vote, Gwen, both for what it means and what it portends.

    This was a bill that was introduced in 2014 by 14 Republicans, Senator Corker and 13 other Republicans, a very partisan bill. But we started to work on it together in January, recognizing the stakes. An Iranian nuclear negotiation is nothing to play around with. And we made some significant changes to turn it into a bipartisan bill.

    After some of the drama in February and March here in the Senate, the letter of 47 to the supreme leader, we felt like we needed to show each other and our public that we could consider an important matter like a deal with Iran in a way that was deliberative and prompt and bipartisan. And when we got the bill done in the Foreign Relations Committee, where I serve, on a unanimous vote, and we got a 98-1 vote on the floor today, it shows that the Senate can step up and take these responsibilities on our shoulders and do them well.

    Now we have to do the same thing with this nine-month war against ISIL that’s going on.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, the White House had originally at some point, maybe it was about the time of this 47 Republicans signing the letter to the ayatollah, they had said that they would veto this.

  • SEN. TIM KAINE:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What changed?

  • SEN. TIM KAINE:

    Well, I think, one, we got the votes. We had an undeniable momentum for this bill. But I also think the White House, as they looked at it, they realized something.

    If the choice was between congressional engagement or no engagement, this White House and probably every other White House would prefer no engagement. But that was never really the choice. Because the White House is negotiating with Iran using a congressionally imposed sanctions regime as the lever in the negotiation, we were always going to be involved.

    So once they realized that the real choice was between does Congress engage under a set of rules that’s prompt and careful and well-defined, or does Congress engage kind of under a free-for-all set of rules, they realized that the better course was to have a careful review. And that’s what we have done.

    We have given the president the ability to do waiver of executive or international sanctions without Congress, but when he proposes relief under the congressional statute, then we enter a review period that’s prompt, and then we have to render either an approval or disapproval or take no action, so that we can quickly, you know, give a congressional kind of signal about what we would intend. And that’s the right way to do this.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, you mentioned the ongoing conflict with ISIL. You spoke about that on the Senate floor today. Do you envision this as a blueprint for congressional action on other international issues, which would normally be the purview of the executive branch?

  • SEN. TIM KAINE:

    I really do, Gwen.

    Of course, the executive branch has huge purview on matters~ of diplomacy and also on matters of war, but Congress has our prerogatives as well. And none are so important as the power of the Congress to declare war. Today is the end of nine months of unilateral executive war without a single vote on the floor of either house of Congress about whether we should be engaged in military action against ISIL.

    It’s been incredibly frustrating. But what I saw happen in the Foreign Relations Committee over the last month or so, coming together to try to tackle a tough issue, consistent with our responsibilities in a bipartisan way, I think what happened today portends that we can use the same approach as we grapple with the president’s proposed authorization for the war against ISIL.

    We shouldn’t be putting our service members’ lives at risk unless Congress is willing to have a debate and say that the mission is in the national interest.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, I asked Senator John Thune a short time ago, and I want to ask you, too. Part of the criticism about congressional intervention here is that you were going to endanger the ultimate agreement, which still hasn’t come to fruition that Senator John Kerry has been involved in — with.

    Do you anticipate that this will make his job tougher or easier?

  • SEN. TIM KAINE:

    I think it will make it easier, Gwen.

    I — look, I take that concern seriously. That’s why I didn’t agree and have not agreed to be part of any sanctions legislation during the course of the negotiation with Iran, because the terms of the negotiation said we wouldn’t do any more sanctions while we were negotiating.

    But the terms of the negotiation didn’t say that Congress couldn’t sign off on the deal. Indeed, the deal that’s being negotiated is one that the Iranian parliament has to sign off on. And Iranian leaders are very sophisticated about our political system. If they want out from under congressional sanctions, they understand that Congress is going to have a say.

    So the fact that Congress will weigh in once a deal is done, if a deal is done, is not surprising to them. They have anticipated it from the beginning that. That will not cause these negotiations to go off the rails.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, thank you very much.

  • SEN. TIM KAINE:

    Thanks, Gwen.

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