WASHINGTON — Partisanship has become the pre-eminent scapegoat for American political failure, an all-purpose explanation for Washington’s inability to act. Yet in rare circumstances, it can actually guarantee action. So, notwithstanding an acrimonious debate, polarization makes the United States’ acceptance of the Iran nuclear deal very likely.
That is because the mechanism for congressional consideration, agreed on by Republican leaders and the White House, reverses the typical legislative imperative. Instead of requiring an extraordinary majority to act, it requires one to stop action — which means partisanship is all President Obama needs to approve the deal.
The Republican-controlled House and Senate can pass a resolution next month disapproving the deal, as lawmakers in both parties expect they will. Mr. Obama can then veto that resolution, as he has promised to do. To override that veto and block the deal, Republican leaders would need two-thirds majorities in each chamber. That would require roughly 25 percent of congressional Democrats to abandon the president on his biggest foreign policy initiative. In 21st-century American politics, that is an exceptionally high bar.
This formula represents an unspoken attempt by both parties to dodge the consequences of gridlock on high-stakes governance issues. In 2011, a similar mechanism resolved the crisis over House Republicans’ refusal to raise the federal debt limit on terms Mr. Obama could accept.
Prodded by the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Congress let Mr. Obama raise the debt limit unless lawmakers blocked it, which required a veto override that proved unattainable.
The congressional scholar Norman Ornstein noted the benefits of that arrangement for both sides: Mr. Obama got the increase his administration needed to avert economic calamity, and Republican lawmakers avoided blame for calamity but still got to vote against raising the limit. Republicans have similar interests on the Iran deal.
Dismissing Mr. Obama’s warning that the only alternative is war, Republican lawmakers insist that maintaining tough sanctions could prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Tougher to dismiss are predictions that blocking the agreement that Mr. Obama reached with Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran and Russia would damage the United States’ leadership and crumble the international consensus that makes sanctions possible.
“It’s totally unrealistic to believe that if we backed out of this deal that the multilateral sanctions would stay in place,” Henry Paulson, who was the Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush, told the Aspen Institute last week. The mechanism for congressional consideration lets Republicans avoid the potential consequences of backing out while leaving responsibility for Iran policy squarely with Mr. Obama and his party.
This is a stark departure from a time not long ago when presidents could achieve bipartisan cooperation on contentious foreign policy initiatives.
President George Bush received significant Democratic backing for the first Iraq War, in 1990, as did his son in 2002 for the second war in Iraq. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter persuaded 40 percent of Senate Republicans to embrace his Panama Canal Treaty despite intense conservative opposition. But Republicans then included liberals such as Senators Jacob K. Javits of New York and John H. Chafee of Rhode Island (Mr. Chafee’s son Lincoln Chafee is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination), who backed Mr. Carter. Democrats included staunch conservatives like John C. Stennis of Mississippi and James B. Allen of Alabama, who opposed him.
On an agreement with reviled Iranian adversaries who are opposed by the United States’ longtime ally Israel, nearly all lawmakers face the temptation to vote no. But ideological homogeneity makes defection by a member of the president’s party personally uncomfortable and politically dangerous.
The announced opposition of Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who is likely to become his party’s next leader in the Senate, has so far led to no visible hemorrhage in Democratic support. Few Republicans have signaled any possibility of supporting the deal.
“This is a very partisan debate we’re having,” said Nicholas Burns, a top State Department official under presidents of both parties. He called the issue “a close call” but backs the deal. “It’s disturbing,” he added. “This is a war-and-peace issue.”
Mr. Obama polarized the debate further by asserting that Iranian “hard-liners chanting ‘Death to America’ ” were “making common cause with the Republican caucus” in fighting the deal. In this case, polarization represents his shortest path to victory.
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(via NY Times)