But yet again, despite skepticism among some Democrats — in particular those up for re-election this year — it’s unlikely that Congress will be able to block any new agreement with Iran. A disapproval resolution in the Senate would require 60 votes; even if that hurdle is cleared, opponents of the new deal would not be able to reach the two-thirds threshold required to override a presidential veto.
That doesn’t mean the sales job for a still-unfinished deal will be easy for President Joe Biden and his national-security deputies.
They’ve already been forced to try to corral some recalcitrant Democrats who have complained recently about a dearth of information about the ongoing talks in Vienna. And they’ll need to work hard to convince enough Democrats that a new agreement with Tehran is even necessary — without feeding into the GOP’s election-year attacks on Biden’s foreign-policy record.
“It’ll be an interesting and challenging path here,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a Biden ally who generally supports the administration’s efforts. “But it completely depends on what the deal is, and if there even is one.”
The revived Iran talks, a top priority for Biden, are incredibly delicate at the moment, as U.S. officials warn that Iran is closer than ever to producing enough material for a bomb. Republicans are uniformly opposed to a new agreement, and several Democrats have expressed reservations surrounding the current negotiations.
On top of that, lawmakers from both parties are putting pressure on the Biden administration to allow the Senate to vote on any new agreement, pointing to the same legal mechanism that paved the way for such votes in both chambers nearly seven years ago.
That law, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act — often shorthanded as INARA — will likely be triggered if the Biden administration completes a deal. It will focus attention on some of the same lawmakers who had an impact on the original pact, in addition to the new crop of senators who have to consider the new agreement in the context of their re-election.
“There’s a different group of members here today than there were at that time,” added Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), one of just four upper-chamber Democrats who opposed the 2015 deal.
“Obviously today, seven years later, is different than 2015,” Menendez added. “There are a lot of challenges with how Iran has advanced. Those are all things that people are going to have to take into consideration.”
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a top target for Republicans in November, said he wants the Senate to ultimately have a say. But he seemed warm to the current talks given how close Iran is to going nuclear, which most Democrats believe is the result of former President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the pact in 2018.
“I want to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon that they can use against Israel or any other country,” Kelly said in a brief interview. “I think it was a mistake to get out of the [2015 deal]. It was not perfect, but they’re much closer today [to a nuclear bomb].”
Other potential Democratic skeptics include those who voted against the original agreement and wanted to see the Biden administration follow through on its promise for a “longer, stronger” deal that includes additional protections against Iranian aggression.
Those lawmakers have raised concerns about the U.S. and its allies rolling back some of the Trump-era sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an Iranian military unit that has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization.
“I’m disappointed because I wanted to see a longer, stronger agreement, and that’s not going to be the case,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who also opposed the 2015 deal. But, he added, “I think at the end of the day the president will get his way.”
The INARA gives Congress the ability to block any nuclear agreement with Iran through a resolution of disapproval. Such a vote would put immense pressure on Democrats looking to show some independence from Biden foreign-policy decisions that have faced significant blowback.
But opponents of the new agreement would need to recruit at least 10 Democrats to support a disapproval resolution — an unlikely prospect, and one that nuclear-deal advocates see as an easy political choice for vulnerable senators.
“This is a winnable fight for the administration,” said Dylan Williams, the chief lobbyist for J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group. “It’s important to remember that not one Democratic lawmaker who voted for the Iran deal in 2015 lost their seat to someone who opposed the deal in 2016. Not one.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), perhaps the Biden administration’s biggest advocate on the Hill on the Iran talks, predicted that Democrats would ultimately agree that re-entering a nuclear pact with Tehran is needed to prevent the regime from acquiring a bomb.
“The politics were really hot on this in 2015. My sense is that this is one of those few votes where political considerations end up falling away,” Murphy added.
But this year’s group of vulnerable Democrats has been known to break with their party at times on key foreign-policy questions. In January, four Democrats facing tough re-election fights this fall voted in favor of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) legislation to sanction the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as fears were escalating over Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine.
Kelly, along with Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, backed the pipeline legislation despite fierce opposition from the White House. A vote on a new Iran nuclear deal could give those senators another opportunity to show independence from the president and woo swing voters who are dissatisfied with Biden’s job performance.
Even though Republicans likely won’t be able to kill the new agreement altogether, they’re using the opportunity to hammer Biden and portray him as a weak leader on the world stage. They’re homing in on the fact that Russia is a party to the negotiations, even as its forces wage war in Ukraine.
“I think it’s insane to give the Ayatollah economic relief for anything like the [2015 deal],” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “It’s insane to have the Russians be the intermediary.”