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Iran debate shifts to the House

Rep. Franks plans to introduce legislation allowing Congress to offer a resolution of disapproval on a possible nuclear deal with Iran.

The lead House sponsor of legislation allowing Congress to express its "disapproval" of a final nuclear agreement with Iran vowed May 20 to introduce the language as a stand-alone bill after being barred from offering it as an amendment to the defense authorization bill.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., is expected to introduce the bill as early as next week, a House aide told Al-Monitor. 

The House Armed Services Committee member had offered it as an amendment to the annual defense bill currently being debated in the House, but the Rules Committee chaired by Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, ruled it out of order on the night of May 20.

"We are running out of time [to weigh in]," the aide said, pointing out that the negotiations are supposed to wrap up by July 20.

It wasn't clear why the amendment was ruled out of order, but a committee insider said it was considered "not germane." The House aide said there may have been jurisdictional issues with the effort, which closely tacks with the House Foreign Affairs Committee's prerogatives. 

In any event, the Defense bill may have been a poor vehicle for the legislation: It's not expected to be reconciled with the Senate version and pass the full Congress until the end of the year — long past the deadline for a deal with Iran — and Democrats have made it clear that tough language on Iran could endanger the $600 billion, must-pass bill.

"My own belief is we have spoken in many ways on the Iran deal," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told Al-Monitor. "We ought to let those negotiations take place without in any way undercutting them."

The Franks language mirrors an amendment to pro-Israel legislation from Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. The House aide said Franks had Corker's blessing to try to push his effort through the House after Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., pulled the Israel bill from the committee on May 19 to avoid a partisan showdown over legislative language that's bitterly opposed by the Obama administration.

"We are absolutely opposed to this amendment, and any similar amendments that are intended to limit the president’s authority and ability to negotiate with foreign countries," a senior administration official told Al-Monitor in an emailed statement. "Such amendments would set a precedent that would severely compromise presidents of both parties from conducting American foreign policy. We cannot have 535 negotiators for every negotiation with a foreign country."

The legislation would give the administration three days to turn over a final agreement with Iran to Congress for review. Lawmakers would then have 15 days to hold hearings and introduce a non-binding "resolution of disapproval," if they so choose.

The Franks push puts the issue squarely in the lower chamber's court, where Republicans remain undecided on the path ahead.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is said to still be angling for a bipartisan resolution laying out Congress' expectations for a final deal with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., but Hoyer remains wary of antagonizing the administration. Others point out that it's not clear what legal form a final deal will take if one is reached, and worry that the administration will delay in sharing the details with Congress, just as it has with the so-called 123 agreement on civil nuclear energy cooperation with Vietnam.

"You can't make these kinds of decisions (on how to proceed) until you know where you're at," said a House Republican staffer on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Still, the Franks bill could gain traction — especially if the pro-Israel lobby gets squarely behind it. 

An official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) told Foreign Policy this week that AIPAC "supports provisions such as the Corker Amendment which underscore the key role that Congress must play in defining the terms of an acceptable deal and its implementation." The Republican staffer, however, said the effort did not come up during a congressional meeting with AIPAC on Tuesday.

Republican lawmakers' appetite for the bill could also be whetted if it becomes clear the administration intends to try to lift sanctions without congressional authorization. Democrats and the White House have vowed that Congress will have a role to play.

The president has broad temporary waiver authority on national security grounds under many of the sanctions bills, but his ability to terminate energy and financial penalties vital to Iran is limited. The Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 in particular requires the president to certify to Congress that Iran has ceased efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology, has been removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and no longer poses a significant threat to the United States or its allies before energy-sector sanctions can be eliminated.

"Ultimately," the administration official said, "comprehensive sanctions relief would clearly require a mix of executive and legislative action."

Republicans aren't convinced.

"I believe that Congress should have more oversight to scrutinize the misguided Iran nuke deal," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East and North Africa, told Al-Monitor in an emailed statement. "It is sad that Congress has to beg the Administration to work with us to enforce existing sanctions and fully implement the laws we pass."

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