House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) put the brakes on a non-binding House resolution aimed at defining the contours of any final agreement with Iran over its nuclear program and calling for additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic, in a move that’s drawing praise from Congress and nuclear nonproliferation experts.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) was expected to introduce the measure Wednesday evening but Hoyer — with help from House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Elliot Engel (D-NY) — reportedly pushed to delay until the morning but he has now officially withdrawn his support.
“Mr. Hoyer believes Congress has the right to express its views on what should be included in a final agreement, but that the timing was not right to move forward this week,” Hoyer spokeswoman Stephanie Young said, according to Politico.
Obama administration officials have been lobbying Congress against interfering with the ongoing Iran talks, saying that the slightest meddling from lawmakers could scuttle a very delicate process. Secretary of State John Kerry told a House panel on Wednesday that Congress can always pass sanctions on Iran if it violates the terms of the Geneva deal reached last month. “[Y]ou don’t need to do it [now],” Kerry said. “It is actually gratuitous in the context of this situation.”
Hoyer’s about face is significant because as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted last week, “Any resolution or bill along these lines that has the support of any House Dem leaders would increase the pressure on Senate Democrats to pass a measure of their own. … And some fear that a measure in the House itself — even if the Senate didn’t act — could have an adverse impact on international talks.”
A Democratic congressional aide told ThinkProgress that “Hoyer should be commended for doing the right thing in giving the administration the space to begin implementing the interim deal that could lead to a guarantee that Iran could never develop a nuclear weapon.” In doing so, the aide said, “the Whip has underscored the importance of maintaining the current international coalition and avoiding the possible unraveling of international cooperation on the strongest set of sanctions Iran has ever faced.”
Experts also praised Hoyer’s decision to back away from Cantor’s bill. “Congress deserves credit for constructing sanctions that helped bring Iran to the table. And its willingness to hold back from taking any action now that pushes Iran away from the table should be applauded,” said Joel Rubin of the Ploughshares Fund. “Real leadership at the top in the House, including coming from Leader Pelosi and Whip Hoyer, made a big difference at a critical moment.”
“Given three decades of distrust between Washington and Tehran, it is not surprising that many on the Hill are skeptical of Iranian intentions. They should be,” Iran expert and former Obama administration Pentagon official Colin Kahl told ThinkProgress. “But enough members also seem to understand that this opportunity for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to one of the world’s thorniest challenges has to be seized, not undermined, and they’ve made a courageous choice to put good policy before politics.”
In addition to calling for additional sanctions on Iran if it violates the Geneva deal, Cantor’s measure said a final deal should include the “dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure,” an option that President Obama said this week is “not available.”
Now that both the House and Senate have backed off on going forward with any Iran related measures, it appears the White House has successfully staved off — temporarily at least — what it sees as unnecessary congressional meddling in the negotiation process. But the battle is only just getting started, as both houses of Congress are gearing up for a fight on what’s in the final deal.