September is always an amusing time of year for politics-watchers, because inevitably Congress will return from their five- or six-week-long paid vacation and then immediately start whining that there is so much on their plate that they simply won't have time to get everything done. Without, of course, ever seeing the irony of such statements (after taking all of August plus a week or two off). This year is no different, of course. Congress is back, and they're already moaning about how much they have to do in September. After all, they've got an upcoming budgetary train wreck to create, the Pope is going to visit and -- first on their list of looming deadlines -- they're supposed to vote on the Iran nuclear deal. It now seems the Republicans are going to fumble this one badly, due (once again) to the intransigence of the House hardliners.
The plan was to hold a politically-fraught but ultimately meaningless vote (or two, or three). This would allow Congress to have its say, but wouldn't derail the actual deal President Obama has struck. This was the plan all along -- make some political hay over the issue (and then use it to campaign on next year), but without suffering any real-world consequences. The Republicans themselves agreed to this arrangement, back in May (when Obama stacked this particular parliamentary deck in his favor).
The original plan was to have Congress pass a resolution expressing their dissatisfaction with the Iran nuclear deal. They'd then put this bill on Obama's Oval Office desk, where he would be forced to veto it. The bill would then get another round of voting, even though it was very likely that the veto would not be overturned. Republicans would have gained three big political moments from this plan: the initial votes in both the House and Senate, the veto itself, and the votes attempting to overturn the veto. They could proclaim "a majority of Congress disapproves of this deal," and they could have told voters that "we fought as hard as we could against Obama on the Iran deal."
That was the plan. However, now that Congress is back in Washington, the plan had to change, once all the Democrats in the Senate went on record as to how they were going to vote. Because Obama now has 42 Democrats on his side in the Senate, the bill will not actually pass but instead will be filibustered to death. You'll note that this removes most of the drama Republicans were counting on. There will now be no veto, and there will be no votes to override a veto. Only the House will pass the bill. The Senate will vote (likely 58 to 42) not to move to a final vote on the bill, and it will thus die. This severely cuts down the amount of political hay Republicans can possibly make over the Iran deal. But at least they'd still have the claim "a majority of Congress voted against the deal." However, listening to the Washington scuttlebutt today, it now seems like they might not even manage to achieve that.
In the Senate, we have the spectacle of Republican leaders whining about the use of the filibuster. Pot, meet kettle. Again, in the irony-impaired zone that is the United States Capitol, we're supposed to just forget the rampant obstructionism and filibuster-frenzied years of Republicans in the Senate minority, and now Democrats are supposed to blithely allow a gentleman's "up or down" vote on the bill the Republicans want to see passed? Yeah, right. That shoe pinches awfully hard when it's on the other foot, doesn't it Majority Leader McConnell? Unless you're auditioning for a second career as a late-night stand-up comic, complaining about the minority using the filibuster isn't going to get you very far.
Even more ironic is what is now happening in the House. While McConnell begs for his up-or-down vote, the more hotheaded of the hardline Republican caucus is now insisting that they're not even going to allow a vote on the resolution disapproving of the Iran nuclear deal. They're blocking it by claiming that the clock "hasn't even started ticking" for the 60 days Congress has to act (this deadline was built in back in May, when Obama so successfully stacked this deck). Nobody else believes their tortured logic, but that's not going to stop them from gumming up the works in the House. Quick review: Republicans want a vote they're not going to get in the Senate, while Republicans in the House are going to prevent any such vote from happening.
The Washington Post is now reporting that the hotheaded House Republicans actually want three bills passed. The first would confirm their twisted logic on the clock situation, the second would be to boost some sanctions, and the third would be to approve the Iran nuclear deal. Confused? Well, so am I. I have no idea what difference it makes politically to vote against a bill supporting the deal rather than voting for a bill disapproving of the deal, but that's what they seem to be demanding (as of this writing, at least -- they're a mercurial bunch, to put it politely).
Legally, however, there would indeed be a difference in attempting to pass a bill approving of the deal versus one disapproving of it. A bill approving the deal is meaningless from the get-go. President Obama has asserted that the deal is an executive agreement and that Congress doesn't even have any power to derail it. He moved from that position, but stacked the deck while doing so. According to the agreement, if a bill disapproving the deal was vetoed and overturned, then the deal would not be able to go forward. There's nothing in the agreement requiring a vote from Congress approving the deal, which would be legally (though not politically) meaningless -- whether it passed or not. But that's what the Tea Partiers are now demanding.
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way, of course, according to the Republican strategists. They were going to convince so many Democrats to object to the deal that they might have even beaten Obama's veto. However, they began this effort with an event which utterly backfired on them politically -- inviting Bibi Netanyahu to address Congress. This pushed a lot of Democrats away in a major way, since it so obviously politicized what should have been a pure debate on foreign policy. Inviting Netanyahu (and the way it was done) was meant to alienate President Obama from the beginning. Instead, it wound up alienating Democrats from considering the anti-deal position.
Even when it became apparent that a veto overturn wasn't going to happen, the Republicans still could have forced the veto to happen, in an effort to give the president a political black eye. Obama still would have gotten the deal, but he would have had to veto the will of Congress to do so. But as more and more Democrats in the Senate announced their support, even this became impossible.
So now what are we left with? The bill won't even get a proper vote in the Senate, merely a "cloture" vote that Republicans will lose. There may not even be any disapproval bill in the House, as the Tea Partiers run amok one more time. It seems these things go through a cycle. John Boehner plots some meaningless parliamentary move designed to score political points against Obama and the Democrats, and then the Tea Partiers wade in and blow the whole process up. Sometimes, as a result, the government shuts down (not this time, thankfully). What the Republicans always wind up with is absolutely nothing to show for their efforts at the end of the day -- which is true for both the Tea Partiers and Boehner. Once again, Republicans -- especially those in the House -- are proving that they are the champion "gang who couldn't shoot straight," unless "shooting yourself in the foot" somehow counts. This does not bode well for the upcoming budget battles, it almost goes without saying.
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