Completed Legislative Action in Congress – 2015

Nuclear Deal with Iran

The agreement with Iran signed by the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China was officially submitted to Congress on July 20. Congress has 60 days to consider the deal, and could vote on a resolution of approval of the agreement, a resolution of disapproval, or both.  The 60-day clock for consideration of the agreement expires on September 17.

After a few days of debate, Senate Democrats agreed to a final vote on a resolution of disapproval but demanded the usual 60 vote threshold to approve major legislation in the Senate. Majority Leader McConnell declined to follow the usual precedent. He then moved to end debate (which could have led to passage by 51 votes), but fell two votes short of the 60 votes he needed 58-42 with all Republicans against and 42 out of 46 Democrats for. The House, after a revolt by the Republican right, came up with three votes. In the most important vote, the House refused to approve the agreement by a vote of 162-269.  The 162 votes in favor were sufficient to uphold a presidential veto should that be necessary in the future. The House also voted 247-186 for a bill to prevent the President from lifting sanctions against Iran and 245-186 to suggest that the President has not submitted the entire agreement to Congress.

Majority Leader McConnell kept the Senate voting on the Iran agreement, but the previous week’s vote had made clear where the Senate stood. There were 42 votes in favor of the agreement and opponents could not force a vote on a resolution that President Obama would be forced to veto. There were three more Senate cloture votes last week, 56-42, 53-45 and 56-42. McConnell’s gambit to force Democrats to vote on a bar on waiving sanctions until Iran recognizes Israel and releases four prisoners failed when the anti-agreement Democrats joined with other Democrats in opposition.  September 17 was the deadline for Congress to act.

The House has a history of multiple times re-litigating issues already settled and appears set to do so on the agreement with Iran. On October 1, the House approved what was called “Justice for Iranian Terrorism Act” (H.R. 3457) by a vote of 251 – 173. This bill restricted the president from providing sanctions relief until Iran pays Americans court-ordered damages for Iranian-backed terror attacks. What the bill was designed to do is undercut the Iran nuclear agreement, but the 173 votes against the bill indicates that a presidential veto would be upheld.

Iran: Preliminary to Agreement

On January 27, Senators Kirk (R-Ill.) and Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced a new Iran sanctions bill, an updated version of S.1881 introduced last year with 59 Senate sponsors. The bill (S.269) would impose sanctions if a long-term deal has not been reached. On January 29, the Senate Banking Committee approved the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015,” S.269, by a vote of 18-4.

On February 27, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Corker (R-Tenn.) introduced The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (S.615) to require a congressional vote on any nuclear deal with Iran. The bill has attracted 21 additional co-sponsors from both parties. Immediately after the speech to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Majority Leader McConnell moved to bring up on the Senate floor the Corker Iran bill, with a cloture vote scheduled for March 10. A revolt of Democratic (and the independent) co-sponsors of the measure forced McConnell to back down.

On April 14, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved by a unanimous 19-0 vote a compromise version of the Corker bill that had been negotiated with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and given the ok by the administration. The Senate began debate on the measure last week, and is expected to consider amendments this week.

On April 24, the Senate began debate on the bill, but after a week, it had only voted on two amendments. A Johnson (R-Wis.) amendment to turn the agreement into a treaty requiring a two-thirds Senate vote failed 39 to 57. A Barrasso (R-Wyo.) to reinstate a terrorism provision went down 45 to 54. After the bill became bogged down in procedural disputes, Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY.) filed cloture on the measure. On May 7, the Senate voted to end debate (cloture) 93-6 and then passed the measure by a 98-1 vote. On May 14, the House approved the Senate-passed bill with no changes by a vote of 400-25.

Also on May 7, a letter organized by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), and Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C) and signed by 150 Members of Congress (and eventually 151) was sent to the White House expressing support for the ongoing diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This 151 number represents more than one third of the ouse needed to uphold a veto of future legislation to block a deal with Iran

FISCAL YEAR 2016 BUDGET RESOLUTION

The Obama administration presented the Fiscal Year 2016 budget to Congress on February 2. The request comes to $612 for the “national defense” category, including $534 for the base Pentagon budget and $51 billion for the Overseas Contingency Fund (war budget). The bill is $38 billion over the Budget Control Act budget caps. Read the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation’s analysis here.

On March 19, the Senate Budget Committee adopted a Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Resolution on a 12-10 partisan vote with all Republicans for and all Democrats against. In the most significant national security vote, a Graham (R-S.C.) amendment to add $38 billion for defense was adopted by the same 12-10 partisan vote. The $38 billion was added to the Overseas Contingency Operations account, an account originally established to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing the new total to $89 billion in addition to the $523 billion base budget (plus additional billions of dollars in the Overseas Contingency Operations accounts for the State Department). This account is not subject to budget caps, thus providing the Pentagon with a workaround for anything it might like to buy.

Early in the morning of March 27, the Senate approved the Budget Resolution by a 52-46 vote with all Democrats against and all Republicans for except for Paul (R-KY.) and Cruz (R-Texas). The Rubio (R-Fla.) amendment to add more money to the military budget failed 32-68 on a point of order. A Paul (R-Ky.) amendment to raise the military budget lost 4-96. An attempt by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to endorse more sanctions on Iran was watered down to the point where it passed unanimously 100-0.

On March 19, the House Budget Committee approved its version of the budget by a 22-13 party-line vote. The committee approved $90 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations account for defense (plus additional billions of dollars in the Overseas Contingency Operations accounts for the State Department).

On March 25, the House adopted the Fiscal Year Budget Resolution by a vote of 228-199. Seventeen Republicans joined all 182 Democrats in opposition. The key vote came on a Price (R-Ga) amendment to add additional money for the Pentagon through the Overseas Contingency Operations account without proposing offsetting cuts. This Price amendment was approved 219-208.

On April 30, the House agreed to the Budget Resolution conference report by a vote of 226-197, with all but 14 Republicans voting for and all Democrats against. Then on May 5, the Senate approved the conference by a vote of 51-48. As the budget resolution is not law, it is likely to be followed by executive branch-congressional negotiations later in the year on the final outlines of the Fiscal Year 2016 budget.

Fiscal Year 2016 State Department Authorization Bill

On June 9, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a 19-0 vote approved the Fiscal Year 2016 State Department Authorization Bill, a measure that has not passed Congress in many years. The bill was submitted as an amendment to the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Bill, but never was called up for a vote. On June 25, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to take up the Fiscal Year 2016 State Department Authorization Bill. The bill died there.