WASHINGTON — The final media count: at least 56 Democratic members skipped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Tuesday speech to Congress, three Minnesotans among them.
Sen. Al Franken and Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison shared concerns about the speech: it had turned too political and it took place without buy-in from the Obama administration. Each watched from their offices as Netanyahu picked apart the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and a coalition including the United States, warning against a nuclear Iran and the diplomatic effort he said would do nothing to prevent that from happening (Eric Black has more on the policies within the speech).
Netanyahu has left, but the Iran problem hasn’t. The U.S. and five other countries are looking to forge a deal with Iran in which the country’s nuclear capabilities are diminished and foreign governments get the opportunity to verify that, in exchange for loosening economic sanctions on the country. But congressional Republicans are ready and willing to move forward with even more sanctions on Iran before the nuclear negotiations end, and at the very least they could consider a bill giving lawmakers a vote on the final deal — currently, the administration could agree to the deal without seeking ratification from Congress.
For the three Minnesota Netanyahu boycotters, the message was similar: Congress should keep its hands off the matter until at least later this month, when the Iran negotiations hit a critical deadline.
“I think we do have a role to play but I think the role that we’re playing is undermining the executive at this point,” Ellison said.
Franken met with Netanyahu later
Franken said Monday he would skip the speech because he was worried it would be a “partisan spectacle,” and afterward he said he didn’t regret sitting it out.
“In that chamber, things get to be a little bit of a theater,” he said. “The way it was done was too partisan for me, and I just felt uncomfortable being a part of a partisan spectacle.”
Franken backs the nuclear talks with Iran and said he “wasn’t entirely in agreement with” Netanyahu on what to do with Iran’s nuclear program (that’s an understatement, considering Netanyahu came out strongly against the negotiations).
Franken was one of about 10 senators to sit down with Netanyahu after the speech, and Franken said he asked him how he and the Obama administration, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, could have such divergent views on Iran.
“He basically said they had different perspectives because America is in a safer neighborhood than Israel,” Franken said. “It wasn’t as responsive to my question as I would have liked, but that’s ok.”
Senate Republicans have floated the possibility of passing preemptive sanctions against Iran before the March 24 deadline for the country and the group of six negotiating partners to reach a preliminary nuclear deal. Many Democrats, such as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, support that effort, but they have said they want to wait until the deadline to take that step.
But Republicans have also introduced a bill that would give Congress the power to review and sign off on any potential Iran deal, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday it could come to the floor soon. Franken said that’s not the best approach right now.
“I certainly think that before the 24th we shouldn’t do anything, either on sanctions or whether Congress should vote on this,” he said. “I think it would not be helpful for the talks.”
Franken said Iran negotiations should yield an “intrusive inspection regime” to make sure Iran can’t build nuclear weapons and slow down the country’s enrichment capabilites enough to catch bomb development early “if they cheat.” Kerry briefed senators on the progress of negotiations last week.
“I want to look at this at the end of the day,” Franken said. And if Iran walks away from the negotiations, could he support new sanctions then?
“Oh absolutely,” he said. “Yeah, that wouldn’t be hard at all.”
McCollum: ‘A prime time address for the prime minister’
Since Obama became president, either the House, Senate or both have voted on Iran sanctions or resolutions at least 10 times, and passed them all easily, often unanimously, according to numbers from GovTrack.
So Rep. Betty McCollum agreed with Franken that Congress could sanction Iran further if nuclear negotiations fail.
“Congress can pass a sanction bill in the drop of a hat if the Iranians either go back on the agreement that the White House has in place after the negotiations have taken place, or if they walk away from the negotiations,” she said. “To pass a sanction bill saying, ‘in case if’ and ‘if you don’t,’ while we’re doing a negotiation, is Congress just getting in the way.”
McCollum said “there was nothing that was surprising” in Netanyahu’s speech, during which he said that no nuclear deal is better than the one being discussed. “He doesn’t support any diplomatic solution to furthering this negotiation,” McCollum said.
McCollum skipped the speech in part because she was worried about its implications on the Israeli elections. Israelis go to polls on March 17, and polls show a tight race for Netanyahu’s Likud Party. In a Washington Post op-ed last week, McCollum said she worried that Netanyahu would make campaign ads using video of his speech in front of the United States Congress, a powerful symbolic image in Israel.
“Clearly they had an agenda and they wanted to deliver a prime time address for the prime minister two weeks before his election,” she said. (Netanyahu’s speech started around 11 a.m. Eastern time, or about 6 p.m. in Israel.)
Ellison: Congress can debate sanctions after a deal
Ellison said Netanyahu’s speech was so similar to past warnings about Iran that “it did not have to be given. It certainly didn’t have to be given from here.”
Ellison disputed some of Netanyahu’s claims about the nature of the negotiations, such as the operational scope of the Iranian nuclear program after a deal is reached, which Netanyahu said would be vast. And while Netanyahu said it’s “just not true” that failed negotiations, combined with harsher sanctions, could increase the risk of war with Iran, Ellison said he’s worried about just that: if the U.S. and others walk away, Iranian hardliners could ramp up bomb production, warranting a potential military response.
When it comes to Congress, Ellison said lawmakers would get the chance to debate the effectiveness of sanctions if negotiations succeed and “the president comes to us, as he invariably will, and say, can you start peeling off sanctions.” (Iran has said they want every sanction lifted in any nuclear deal.)
And if negotiations fail — something even President Obama has said is possible — Ellison didn’t rule out voting to take a tougher line against Iran.
“I’ve voted for sanctions before, and I’ve voted against sanctions before,” he said. “For me, it’s all about diminishing the threat of weaponization. That’s the goal.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry