The scars from the contentious congressional debate over the Iran nuclear deal are spurring lawmakers to press for a role in President Trump's talks with North Korea.
Lawmakers in both parties say whatever comes from Trump’s talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which will begin with a historic summit in Singapore in less than a week, the result should get congressional approval — be it as a treaty that needs Senate ratification or in the form of separate oversight legislation.
“Shouldn’t we have a uniform standard that the deal should be subject to some congressional review before it can be considered fait accompli and done?” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) asked at congressional hearing this week, comparing North Korea to Iran.
“I do not want there to be a deal done unilaterally by an Article II executive without a review process that is at least as significant as the review process that we unanimously agreed should be imposed with respect to the Iranian deal.”
The hangover from the Iran deal has lingered three years after it was agreed to since Trump recently withdrew from the accord, inviting comparisons by vowing to do better with North Korea.
At a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged more congressional input for a North Korea deal than was given on the Iran deal.
“I think the bar is low, and I'm going to beat that,” Pompeo said of keeping Congress in the loop, a swipe at the Obama administration.
Top Democrats this week vowed to block sanctions relief if a North Korea deal does not meet certain principles. The standards they outlined included benchmarks similar to what Trump wanted in the Iran deal, including the ability to conduct inspections anytime, anywhere and an assurance that the deal be permanent.
Still, the Democrats would not commit to legislation similar to what Congress passed to oversee the Iran agreement.
“If we think that the president is veering off course, we would not hesitate to move. But let's see where he's headed,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
When the Obama administration negotiated the Iran deal in 2015, lawmakers in both parties were rankled by the administration’s insistence that the agreement was not a treaty and so did not need to go before the Senate.
To prevent former President Obama from circumventing Congress, lawmakers wrote separate legislation that established a process to block the deal from going into effect.
That legislation, known as the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), passed the Senate 98-1 and the House 400-25.
But the Iran deal’s opponents ultimately could not muster the votes to block the agreement from going into force after a bruising debate, one that Trump revived by dangling the prospect of withdrawal for more than a year before pulling the trigger.
When Trump withdrew from the Iran pact last month, the deal’s opponents said Obama reaped what he sowed by not having a Senate-approved treaty.
Seeking to differentiate itself from the Obama administration, the Trump administration has indicated it would like a North Korea deal to be a treaty.
“It is absolutely the case that it is our intention to achieve an agreement that would be put before the United States Senate,” Pompeo said last month.
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, insisted the Trump administration assured him a North Korea agreement will come to the Senate as a treaty.
“The president of the United States and his team clearly understand the constitutional responsibility of both branches of government,” Risch said. “The president, the vice president and the secretary of State have all told me separately that their intent is to put together a treaty that will be submitted to the United States Senate under the constitution for ratification.”
Still, asked at a briefing Tuesday about Congress’s involvement in a deal, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “We're getting ahead of ourselves.”
Indeed, some Republican senators have said that while Congress should be kept apprised of the North Korea talks, it’s too early discuss specific ways lawmakers can oversee a deal.
Asked this week what role Congress should play in a North Korea deal, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said “it depends on what kind of deal it is.”
“Pompeo’s indicated he would prefer if they do something expansive that it is a treaty, and if they do something expansive, I think it should be, but who knows what’s going to come — it’ll be easier to say after we see what they do,” he said.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, similarly said “it’s premature to talk about” INARA-style legislation or a treaty.
“I think the more engagement you have with Congress, the better, but let’s get this first part of it right,” he said, referring to the summit.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he’d like to see a deal come before Congress in one form or another.
“The best thing that could happen is if we get a deal, then it comes to the Congress, and we can bless it,” Graham said. “That would be the right approach. I don’t particularly care if it’s a treaty, I don’t care if it’s what we did on Iran, but I think having it come to Congress would be a good thing.”
Relying on Senate ratification of a treaty could imperil a deal from taking effect, some experts warned.
The last treaty approved by the Senate was Montenegro’s entry into NATO last year, which received bipartisan support but was held up at the objection of one senator. Before that, the last major treaty the Senate approved was the New START Treaty with Russia in 2010.
“I think about our Congress, I think we’re out of the business of treaties for a while,” Suzanne DiMaggio, director and senior fellow at New America, said at a 38 North briefing on the Trump–Kim summit. “So I’m not sure how realistic it is, at this stage of the game. And that’s frankly why President Obama pursued just doing it through a presidential order, because he knew it wouldn’t pass Congress.”
On the other hand, a treaty could protect a North Korea deal from meeting the same fate as the Iran deal when the next president takes office.
“I vote treaty,” Robert Gallucci, chief U.S. negotiator during the 1994 North Korea nuclear crisis, said at the briefing. “You want it to be durable. You want the bump you get with the other side, if you’re really going to offer them a treaty. But if you can’t get it, then you’re back in this ballgame.”