Facing a difficult vote that would have forced Democrats to choose sides between the White House and members of the pro-Israel community, Senator Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, removed a key piece of pro-Israel legislation from the committee's agenda, according to congressional aides familiar with the matter.
The bill, the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, would expand cooperation between the two nations in a number of areas, including defense, intelligence, energy, and homeland security. The legislation enjoys broad bipartisan support and would have likely passed the foreign relations committee. But Menendez surprised Republicans by calling off a vote on the bill after it became clear that the committee's ranking member, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), planned to introduce an amendment related to the Obama administration's nuclear talks with Iran that would have forced Democrats to make a politically difficult choice in the run up to this year's midterm elections.
Should President Obama reach a deal with Iran and five other world powers to restrain the country's nuclear program, the Corker measure would have forced the president to submit the full plan to Congress within three days. The amendment would then give Congress the right to hold a "vote of disapproval" on the final deal and make way for hearings on the matter. Notably, the legislation would not give Congress the power to block the deal, only to express its will on the issue.
Such a vote would have likely divided Democrats torn between standing behind the White House's hard-fought diplomatic efforts and members of the pro-Israel community, many of whom are deeply skeptical of an Iran deal.
In a statement Monday evening, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization, gave support to Corker's amendment. "AIPAC supports provisions such as the Corker Amendment which underscore the key role that Congress must play in defining the terms of an acceptable deal and its implementation," an AIPAC official said.
A spokesman for Menendez declined to comment. One Senate aide, speaking against the new measure, said Corker's amendment didn't belong in a bill pertaining to the U.S.-Israel partnership. "It is deeply disappointing that a bipartisan bill cosponsored by over 60 senators sending a strong message extending far beyond the United States ... is being politicized when it should be passed," said the aide. "This is the right bill for the right time as the United States and Israel continue to make advances in technology, homeland security, agriculture, and other areas. It is not the appropriate vehicle to legislate on Iran." He also expressed frustration that the amendment was introduced just days before the markup of the bill, which had been in the works for more than a year.
Many in the pro-Israel community have argued that the Iran nuclear issue is part and parcel of any pro-Israel legislation given the perception that the nuclear program is an existential threat to the Jewish state. However, the amendment has also been viewed by some as a political tool aimed at driving a wedge between pro-Israel Democrats. AIPAC has traditionally avoided legislation aimed at politicizing the Israel issue in favor of support for bipartisan legislation.
When asked directly about the Corker amendment, a senior U.S. administration official declined to oppose or support it. "Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon has been a top priority for the administration, toward which we have worked diligently with Congress and our international partners," said the official. "The administration is fully committed to continuing to brief and consult closely with Congress so that the United States government speaks with one voice and does not undermine our negotiators' efforts to achieve a strong deal that will protect our interests and those of our partners and the international community." The official sent a follow up e-mail saying the administration does officially oppose the Corker amendment.
This post has been updated.