In a major victory for President Obama, Senate Democrats held fast on Thursday and blocked action on a Republican resolution designed to derail the U.S. –Iran nuclear non-proliferation agreement. By a vote of 58 to 42, the Republican-controlled Senate fell two votes shy of the 60-vote supermajority required to cut off debate and take a final vote on a resolution disapproving of the deal.
If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and other Senate GOP leaders fail to resurrect the measure by a Sept. 17 deadline, Obama will have prevailed over his congressional foes and can begin lifting economic sanctions against Iran as part of a comprehensive agreement to shelve Tehran’s development of a nuclear weapon for at least the next 15 years.
After a long day of speeches and behind the scenes maneuvering by the two parties and the White House, there was no way of telling how this historic foreign policy conflict would finally work out. Adding to the drama and uncertainty was House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) who raised the possibility that the high profile political controversy could actually end up in courts.
Boehner told reporters that he might sue Obama because the administration had failed to turn over every shred of documentation including private side deals incorporated into the final version of the nuclear deal approved by the U.S., Iran and five other major countries in Vienna last July.
A law approved in May granting Congress a final review and vote on the agreement before it begins to take effect specifies that the administration must provide a complete record of the deal so that lawmakers could evaluate how effective it would be in insuring Iran’s compliance and allowing international inspectors to gain access to Iranian nuclear sites.
Boehner and scores of other Republicans in the House and Senate insist the record is woefully incomplete, despite Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s assurances to the contrary.
“If you read the provisions in [the law], it’s pretty clear that the president has not complied,” Boehner said during his weekly meeting with reporters. “Because it makes clear than any side agreement and any other type of agreement – including those that do not directly involve us – must be turned over as part of it. I do not believe that he’s complied.”
Boehner is under enormous pressure from conservatives in both the House and Senate and from Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump to devise a strategy to thwart final action on the Iran nuclear deal for as long as possible, in hopes of finding a way to prevent the U.S. and other signatories from lifting economic sanctions against Tehran. The speaker said the agreement is "worse than anything I could’ve ever imagined,” according to The Hill.
The Republicans’ clearly lack the votes to stop the Iran deal from taking effect. Even if the Senate and House were somehow able to pass a resolution of disapproval and send it to the White House, neither chamber could muster the two-thirds majority required to override Obama’s certain veto.
The House yesterday approved a bill asserting that Obama had not furnished Congress with all the documents related to the nuclear agreement, and on Friday, it will vote on a measure to prevent the administration from lifting the economic sanctions as part of the overall deal. Then there will be a final House vote on a resolution of disapproval – a symbolic victory for the Republicans, a few Democrats and a phalanx of pro-Israel and conservative groups that believe the deal will prove to be a catastrophic mistake.
If all else fails, Boehner has broadly hinted the courts may be Congress’s only recourse. And that would be unprecedented, according to some congressional and constitutional experts. Boehner’s threat is extraordinary because the House already has a case pending in U.S. District Court against Obama and officials administering the Affordable Care Act.
Federal court judge Rosemary Collyer on Wednesday granted the House legal standing in a suit filed by House lawyers last fall challenging the administration’s spending of billions of dollars on Obamacare cost sharing subsides without a specific congressional appropriation. GOP leaders said the suit was deemed essential to curtail what they believe is “executive overreach” by Obama on a raft of important issues, including health care, immigration and the environment.
Collyer’s ruling marked the first time that either chamber of Congress or Congress as an institution had gone to court to do battle with a president over a matter of constitutional authority. More than a dozen times in the past, individual lawmakers or private citizens have filed suit against a sitting president, as was the case when several lawmakers led by the late Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), sued Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1979 for ending a defense pact with Taiwan without congressional approval.
Also, state officials from Texas and 25 other states went to court earlier this year to try to block implementation of a presidential executive order that would have extended protection against deportation to more than 11 million illegal immigrants. In February – just a day before hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were set to begin applying for legal protection and work permits -- the administration postponed the program after a judge issued a last-minute order halting the program pending resolution of the lawsuit.
Kermit Roosevelt, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who specializes in constitutional law, said yesterday, “In most of these cases the courts have said lawsuits against the government are really for individuals,” Roosevelt said. “But when you’ve got a dispute between two branches of government, the Constitution gives them their own powers and, generally speaking, they’re supposed to use those powers, rather than go to court. So what Boehner is threatening to do is “an attempt to go outside the political system and make it into a legal question rather than a political one.”