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Iran Deal Debate Dusts Off Flipped Scripts on Filibuster

With McConnell now in charge, Reid has become the filibusterer in chief. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

For years, the filibuster was a sword used by Republicans to slice President Barack Obama's agenda. Now, it's the shield that keeps him from having to dust off his rarely used veto pen.  

And the White House is just fine with that. But the long march to 41 Democratic senators willing to back the president on the Iran deal — and keeping, as the White House clearly would prefer, Obama from ever getting a disapproval resolution — has Republicans crying foul.  

Partisan staffers and lawmakers on either side have flipped the script from a year ago on the merits of the filibuster. There's nothing particularly surprising about that — a similar flip happened when Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007 after, among other things, filibustering the Defense Appropriations bill to block oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called out the Kentucky Republican now setting the agenda.  

"It would be a little ironic for now Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to express concern about a tactic that he, himself, employed on countless occasions," Earnest said. "The other thing that I'll point out is that the 60-vote threshold is actually one that was approved by the 98 senators who voted for the Corker-Cardin legislation back in the spring. There's been no change to the procedure. This is exactly how everyone understood ... the procedure for Congress to consider this agreement would work."  

Of course, there's plenty of irony in the White House backing filibusters now after decrying them month after month, week after week, year after year.  

Republicans acknowledged Tuesday they knew all along that a 60-vote threshold would be required for the Iran deal , even as they decried Democrats for running the same procedural plays they used to run when they were playing defense. Several of them made statements to that effect back when the Iran nuclear review deal was passed months ago, and anyone who knows the Senate knows that's how things have operated as a matter of course.  

“I recognize, and have all along, that it takes 60 senators to advance legislation and get to a final vote on a bill or resolution,” Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker told CQ Roll Call in a lengthy statement of his own. But Corker nevertheless said he's "very disappointed" Democrats are threatening to filibuster to keep the Senate from a final vote at a simple majority threshold.  

One House Republican even sent Mitch McConnell a letter Tuesday urging the majority leader to use the "nuclear option" and end the filibuster rule entirely in order to get a veto-bait Iran nuclear deal to Obama's desk. That's something that doesn't have support in the Senate, where even firebrand Ted Cruz of Texas has opposed ending the filibuster, even for issues like repealing Obamacare .  

And at this point, it's all a bit of Washington kabuki over a messaging-debating point — will Republicans be able to get a headline "Congress Votes to Kill Obama Iran Deal" or will Democrats get the headline "Senate Democrats Filibuster Effort to Torpedo Iran Deal." The verbal and procedural jousting and even the nuclear option wouldn't effect the final outcome one iota. The only issue at stake is whether the Iran deal survives via a sustained veto or a failed cloture vote.  

A potentially more consequential filibuster fight could come over keeping the government open. Democrats have already blocked spending bills in opposition to the GOP's plans to spend $38 billion more for defense while capping domestic spending, despite numerous White House veto threats. Without a budget deal, that could lead to shutdown brinksmanship .  

Meanwhile, while the Senate jousts over procedure, the House's Iran deal maneuverings are far less predictable given a revolt from members of the Freedom Caucus. Some conservative members of that group exclusively told CQ Roll Call's Matt Fuller late Tuesday coming out of a meeting in the Tortilla Coast basement that they would push Republican leadership Wednesday morning to delay a vote on the Iran deal, contending Obama hasn't complied with the law that he turn over all of the documentation needed yet to start the 60-day clock for Congress to act.  

That would likely trigger a White House declaration of victory with the potential for yet another court case to follow, alongside ones on Obamacare implementation and the president's immigration orders.  

Related: Freedom Caucus to GOP Leaders: Delay Iran Vote See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.