U.S. House Republican leaders changed their plans for voting on the Iran nuclear agreement September 9 under intense pressure from conservative lawmakers who adamantly oppose the deal.
Instead of voting on a resolution of disapproval like the one being debated in the Senate this week, leaders announced that the House will conduct three votes related to the deal, starting September 10.
The change reflects a strategy among conservatives to try to gain time to defeat the deal by insisting that the White House has not met its obligation to provide full details of the agreement to Congress for review.
In a closed-door meeting, conservatives prevailed upon House leaders to offer legislation stipulating that the Obama administration had not properly submitted the accord to Congress, in particular by leaving out the details of "secret side deals" that Iran made with the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency to govern monitoring and compliance with the agreement.
The UN agency has said details of those side deals are privileged and cannot be fully disclosed to Congress under terms of the accord between Iran and world powers. Thus, any effort to force the White House to provide the details are likely to fail.
After first voting on the measure requiring full disclosure of the side agreements September 10, the House will vote on a resolution approving the nuclear deal, under the new gameplan. The second measure is certain to fail in light of unanimous opposition to the accord among the House's Republican majority, as well as opposition from at least 17 House Democrats.
A third vote would prevent President Barack Obama from lifting congressionally mandated sanctions on Iran, as planned under the agreement.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said leaders hope to complete the three votes this week. Should the conservative voting strategy fail, the House still has the option of voting on a disapproval resolution like the one in the Senate, he said.
Conservative resistance to the House's original gameplan to vote on a disapproval resolution emerged this week after it became clear the White House had the votes it needed to block such a resolution in the Senate.
The conservative backlash forced House GOP leaders to cancel the start of debate on a disapproval resolution September 9 and call an emergency meeting on how to move forward.
Rep. John Fleming said delaying the vote and allowing lawmakers to review the "secret side deals" could result in more Democrats opposing the Iran deal.
“Let’s say that something comes out that’s so hideous and so egregious that even Democrats wouldn’t dare go along with this deal,” Fleming told The Hill newspaper. “You don’t know what you don’t know."
The conservative rebellion in the House was egged on by Senator Ted Cruz, a GOP presidential candidates who spent much of the day railing against the Iran accord at a Capitol Hill rally he co-hosted with businessman Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential contender.
Cruz has repeatedly allied himself with House ultra-conservatives to thwart the plans of GOP leaders. He and other conservatives contend that the 60-day clock set by congressional review legislation passed earlier this year can't really start until lawmakers get the complete text of the side agreements negotiated between Iran by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency.
The law stipulates that the 60-day review period is to begin after the administration transmits "the text of the agreement" to Congress.
If they are correct, that would mean that the September 17 deadline for passing a disapproval resolution would be suspended indefinitely until the White House complies with Congress' demands.
But the White House has insisted that the UN agency's side deals with Iran are not covered by the congressional review law, and it does not have the documents Republicans are demanding in any case.
Even Senate Republican leaders expressed doubts September 9 about the conservative gameplan.
"As I understand the law...we have to act before September 17, which is next week, or the deal goes forward," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Commitee and one of the authors of the law giving Congress authority to review the deal, was also skeptical and said Congress should go ahead and vote on the disapproval resolution, even though it's unlikely to stop the deal.
"Right now we've got strong bipartisan opposition to this deal. It's my opinion that we're far better off focusing on the substance" rather than the timing of a vote, he said.
The White House and Democratic lawmakers were downright dismissive of the conservative ploy to delay action on the deal.
"Sounds like a plan hatched up at Tortilla Coast on a Tuesday night," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, jokingly referring to a restaurant near the Capitol building where congressional conservatives frequently meet.
Schultz added that there's a possibility that the delay caused by the conservative gameplan could result in Congress missing its opportunity to vote on the deal before the September 17 deadline.
"If Congress does not vote, this agreement goes into effect. It's as simple as that," he said.