The senator using Obama's words against him.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Rubio's New and Improved Poison Pill

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and aspirant for his party's presidential nomination, has a very poisonous pill he is seeking to add to Iran legislation this week before the Senate.   

No, it's not his much discussed amendment saying Congress would not lift its sanctions on Iran unless Iran recognized Israel. Rather Rubio just wants the Iran deal to conform to the president's own description of a nuclear framework agreement. As Rubio said Wednesday, "It requires this final deal be the deal the president says it is."

On the surface, this seems like small ball. On April 2, the White House released a fact sheet that spelled out Iran's obligations to modify some of its nuclear facilities and limit its enrichment. The fact sheet said sanctions would be phased out over time as Iran complied with the terms of the framework.

Rubio's amendment simply quotes that fact sheet verbatim and says the president may not waive or lift any Congressional sanctions until he certifies Iran has met the White House conditions.

"For the life of me, I don't understand why that would be controversial," Rubio said Wednesday. "Yet somehow, I was told this would box the White House in."

But Rubio knows very well why the amendment is controversial. Almost immediately after the White House announced the terms of what it thought was a framework agreement, the Iranians balked. The foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted that the White House fact sheet was spin. The head of Iran's revolutionary guard corps said international inspectors would never gain access to military sites. And Iran's supreme leader says all sanctions must be lifted up front when Iran signs an agreement.

In the face of Iran's new red lines, Obama wobbled. On April 17, Obama said he was instructing his negotiators to "find formulas that get to our main concerns while allowing the other side to make a presentation to their body politic that is more acceptable.”

In the Senate it's not clear whether Rubio will get a vote on his fact-sheet amendment. On Wednesday Rubio said leaders of his party promised that he would be able to get a fair hearing for his amendments during the floor debate, but that this week he said he was being told there may not be enough time to vote on all the amendments Republicans have offered.

So far, Democrats and a few Republicans have voted down two amendments to the Iran bill. An amendment to treat an Iran deal as a treaty, and thus require an affirmative two-thirds majority to approve it in the Senate, was voted down Tuesday 57 to 39. Another amendment that would require Obama to certify Iran was not supporting acts of terrorism against Americans as a condition for lifting Congressional sanctions was voted down 54 to 45 on Wednesday. Among the Republicans voting with Democrats on the amendments are Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and co-author of the legislation; Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee; and Senator Lindsey Graham, an Iran hawk who has hinted he will be running for president.

But Rubio's fact-sheet amendment is different. It doesn't challenge the presidential authority to sign an executive agreement. Republicans supported that power when their party controlled the White House. Rubio's fact-sheet amendment is also germane to the Iran legislation before the Senate. An argument used against other amendments--like Rubio's one on recognizing Israel--is that it asks Iran to meet conditions not related to the nuclear negotiations.

Rubio's fact sheet amendment only asks Democrats to vote on whether a final Iran deal should meet the conditions as described by the leader of their own party. If Democrats vote that it should, then Obama may be forced to issue a veto over his own fact sheet as he seeks to make a final agreement more palatable to Iran. If the Democrats vote that it shouldn't, then they will appear to be conceding the White House either misled the public or bungled the negotiations earlier this month.

An irony here is that Rubio himself has said that the deal outlined in the White House fact sheet was too weak. But bad policy in this case makes for very good politics. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net