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Trump May Put Congress On The Hook Over Iran Deal


Every 90 days, President Trump has to make a decision. He is required to say whether Iran is abiding by the 2-year-old agreement to curb its development of nuclear weapons and whether the deal is still in the United States' vital national interest. Twice, the president has certified to Congress that it is working and in U.S. interests. And today, he'll announce his verdict once again. It's widely expected that this time he will refuse to certify the deal, which leaves the next step up to Congress. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Perhaps no member of Congress is more certain that President Trump won't certify the Iran deal than Senator Tom Cotton. The Arkansas Republican declared at a Washington think tank last week there are really just two options, fix it or nix it.


TOM COTTON: Better to have no deal at all than one that compromises our security, emboldens Iran and encourages nuclear proliferation across the Middle East. The world needs to know we're serious, we're willing to walk away and we're willing to reimpose sanctions and a lot more than that. And they'll know that when the president declines to certify the deal.

WELNA: Trump already can reimpose sanctions by executive order. Congress can vote to do so as well anytime through regular order, which can entail a lot of time and procedural obstacles. But under a law Republicans pushed through Congress two years ago, should the president fail to certify the Iran deal, Congress has a 60-day window for fast-track votes on snapping back sanctions without holding hearings or having to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. Gordon Adams is an expert on national security matters in Congress at the Stimson Center.

GORDON ADAMS: Congress here could do nothing, Congress could reimpose sanctions, or Congress could change the requirement in the law to eliminate the 90-day certification requirement.

WELNA: There's little love left on Capitol Hill for that requirement. New York's Eliot Engel voted against the Iran deal two years ago. But yesterday at a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he's the top Democrat, Engel railed against bouncing the Iran ball into Congress' court.


ELIOT ENGEL: This talk of decertifying the agreement then kicking it to Congress for some sort of magical fix just doesn't make sense.

WELNA: Other lawmakers are looking to some of Trump's more seasoned collaborators to prevail on the president. While Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is a known hawk on Iran, he was asked about the Iran deal, also known as the JCPOA, at a Senate hearing earlier this month, by Maine independent Angus King.


ANGUS KING: Do you believe it's in our national security interests at the present time to remain in the JCPOA? That's a yes-or-no question.

WELNA: Mattis paused several seconds before giving his answer.


JAMES MATTIS: Yes, Senator. I do.

WELNA: Even Ed Royce, the Republican who chairs the House foreign affairs panel, made clear at a hearing this week that he's standing by the Iran agreement - despite having earlier voted against it.


ED ROYCE: As flawed as the deal is, I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it.

WELNA: Congress has a lot of other big issues to deal with in the coming weeks. Still, a bill to reimpose sanctions could be introduced by a GOP majority leader. Senator Chris Murphy is a Connecticut Democrat. He warned earlier this week that reimposing sanctions would blow up the Iran deal and free Tehran to resume its pursuit of nuclear weapons.


CHRIS MURPHY: We need to show congressional Republicans that this is not, frankly, a binary choice. Stay in the deal, or get out of the deal.

WELNA: Another choice would be to simply remove the requirement that the president certify the deal - or not - every 90 days.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.