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Conservatives Force Boehner to Rethink Iran (Updated)

Boehner's speakership could depend on September. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 6:38 p.m. | Speaker John A. Boehner's latest cave to conservatives may not portend well for this September. Or it's a signal Boehner is listening to the House Republican Conference and could emerge from a busy month even stronger.  

Either way, the verdict isn't likely to be clear until the Ohio Republican and his unruly conference settle on a path forward through the latest battle for the soul of the party. The plan, as it now stands, seems to be to vote on a plan similar to one offered earlier this week by Rep. Peter Roskam to delay a vote on the disapproval resolution until the president transmits all "side deals" related to the Iran nuclear agreement.  

The House also plans to vote on a bill to prevent President Barack Obama from lifting sanctions against Iran. And finally, the House could vote on an approval resolution for the Iran deal that would fail by design, but put Democrats on the record.  

None of this was a part of leadership's original plan. But on Wednesday, after conservatives threatened to vote down their own leadership's rule to bring up a disapproval resolution on the Iran nuclear deal, Team Boehner changed course and embraced a strategy that was cooked up separately, but maybe equally, by Roskam, a former member of leadership, and the House Freedom Caucus.  

Roskam returned from the five-week August recess Tuesday armed with a resolution. The Illinois Republican, who was once the chief deputy whip but lost that position when he tried to move up during the June 2014 leadership shakeup, made a motion on the floor to delay a vote on the House's disapproval resolution until the Obama administration had revealed all "side deals " related to the Iran nuclear agreement.  

The argument from Roskam was simple. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the president had a legal obligation to send to Congress "all related materials and annexes" on the Iran agreement. Roskam says a secret agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency violates the terms of the law. (Congress never received text of that agreement, and therefore, Roskam argues, the 60-day clock for Congress to approve or disapprove of the deal has not started.)  

That isn't the administration's view.  

White House officials argue they weren't in possession of any agreement between Iran and the IAEA, and the administration seems fully intent on implementing the Iran deal on Sept. 17. White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz dismissed the new plan from House Republicans as one "hatched up at Tortilla Coast on a Tuesday night."  

There may be some truth to that assessment.  

House GOP leadership was intent on bringing the Iran disapproval resolution to the floor Wednesday, with a final vote scheduled for Friday. But with the House Freedom Caucus banding together Tuesday night at Tortilla Coast — and during a Wednesday morning conference meeting — the plan suddenly changed.  

Conservatives don't feel the need to cooperate with the Iran nuclear review bill if Obama didn't, and they want to preserve their ability to take Obama to court over the Iran deal. While such a tactic may face long odds — it could be years before a judge ever has to rule on such a matter, if at all — many Republicans don't see the virtue in playing out the string on what is already, in essence, a done deal. (Democrats in the Senate look poised to filibuster a disapproval resolution, meaning Obama wouldn't even have to veto the legislation for it to take effect.)  

Many Republicans think there's a strong argument to be made that Obama didn't follow the law. And while other Republicans worry that not voting on the disapproval resolution lets Democrats off the hook, conservatives cooked up the scheme to put their counterparts on the record with an approval resolution vote.  

That vote would obviously fail, but conservatives believe it would maintain the House's right to go after the president in a court of law.  

As Idaho Republican Raúl R. Labrador, one of the House Freedom Caucus' founding members, was explaining that strategy to reporters Wednesday, leadership aides were busy emailing reporters with a plan that incorporated just that tactic.  

It's certainly true Boehner is following the lead of conservatives on the Iran deal. But it's also maybe one of the easiest things he could give the insurgent wing this month. North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows, who offered a resolution to strip Boehner of his gavel at the end of July, told CQ Roll Call last week the conservatives would be watching how the speaker handles a number of issues, Iran among them.  

Conservatives, Meadows said, want to know Boehner is listening. And listen he did.  

Rep. Tim Huelskamp told CQ Roll Call Wednesday that Boehner's change of course on Iran "helps the speaker."  

Huelskamp, who has voted against Boehner twice and said he'd vote against him again, said he didn't think the speakership "hinges" on how the Ohio Republican handles Iran, but he certainly didn't seem to think this hurt Boehner's case.  

The question is whether Boehner following conservatives on Iran helps him ignore the right on an upcoming battle over Planned Parenthood, or whether it signals how persuadable Boehner is at this moment.  

Obviously, adding language to defund Planned Parenthood in a continuing resolution — and entering into a government shutdown when the president refuses to sign such a bill, if it could even get to the president's desk — is different from changing course on Iran.  

But the small move now may embolden conservatives later, especially when they've demonstrated they can shape Republican policy when they get creative (and threaten to take down rules). Only time will tell if Boehner still has the juice in his conference to disregard an increasingly confident conservative wing and survive.  

On Wednesday, following the GOP conference meeting where leaders were presented with organized opposition to their Iran plan and had to change course, Boehner was asked if the "rattling" in the conference about taking him down would make it more difficult to address issues such as Planned Parenthood and government funding.  

Boehner, in typical Boehner form, shrugged it off.  

"It does not make it more difficult because I've got widespread support in the conference," he said. "And I appreciate that."  

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

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