STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's the backstory of a question we posed to President Obama. The question involved his nuclear deal with Iran.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Congress votes on that deal this month. Many lawmakers oppose the president, yet he has a good chance to win because the deal will be considered under rules that favor him, even if his opponents gain a majority in Congress.
INSKEEP: That is what led to the question we posed in a recent interview.
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INSKEEP: Are you entirely comfortable going forward with a historic deal, knowing that most of the people's representatives are against it?
BARACK OBAMA: Well, what I know is that unfortunately, a large portion of the Republican Party, if not a near unanimous portion of Republican representatives, are going to be opposed to anything that I do.
INSKEEP: So the White House and Congress are working around their mutual opposition. This is the story of how they do that on many issues. The Iran deal is one example. The White House contends Congress has no business in that deal. It's an executive agreement, not a treaty. Lawmakers in both parties demanded a voice. Many dislike the deal a lot. When Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before Congress, Sen. Bob Corker described the agreement this way.
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BOB CORKER: From my perspective, Mr. Secretary - I'm sorry - not unlike a hotel guest that leaves only with a hotel bathrobe on his back, I believe you've been fleeced.
INSKEEP: So he said. Yet, Corker was among the architects of rules that make it hard to stop the deal. That's the heart of this story. Lawmakers sometimes set up votes to oppose important measures which they know will likely take affect anyway.
NORM ORNSTEIN: Creative means or desperate means, however it may be, are the order of the day.
INSKEEP: That's Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. He is watching Sen. Corker, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
ORNSTEIN: And a very strong, legislative-minded, policy-minded guy.
INSKEEP: And also a guy in a tough spot. Corker has known for some time that the president and the United Nations were on their way to approving the Iran agreement.
ORNSTEIN: Corker and many of his fellow Republican leaders understand that once the president has made a deal with all these other nations, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, if Congress votes to block it, it's not going to look good for anybody, the country or them. So you find a way to make it work.
INSKEEP: They found a way. They borrowed an old mechanism that governs transfers of nuclear technology abroad. Here's how it works. Instead of voting whether to approve the Iran deal, Congress votes whether to disapprove. If they disapprove, the president can veto their disapproval. It would take two-thirds of Congress to override the veto, and that makes all the difference. We asked NPR editor Ron Elving how this changes the number of votes the president needs.
If this is ordinary legislation that the president wants, how many votes would he normally need to get it through the Senate?
RON ELVING, BYLINE: If it were normal legislation and not a treaty, you would need 60 to shut off debate and then 51 to prevail.
INSKEEP: And if it was a treaty?
INSKEEP: OK, that's a lot of votes. Under this procedure, how many votes does the president need to prevail?
ELVING: That's the essence of what we're talking about here. If the Senate gives the president 34 votes to sustain his veto, he has won, and it's over.
INSKEEP: The president can win even without a veto. He does that if a minority of senators sustains a filibuster. His supporters are working toward the votes they need and gained two more just yesterday. The truth is Republicans can all vote no. Even Democratic skeptics like Sen. Charles Schumer can vote no, and the president might still find enough votes to prevail.
ELVING: It is a mechanism by which lawmakers can deal with the contradictions that reality presents them. You can call it cynical, you can call it pragmatic, but it gets the job done, both in the sense of keeping the government going forward and in the sense of solving the political problem of the individual lawmaker.
INSKEEP: This happens more often than you might think. Consider a story we heard recently from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. He is a tea party favorite and presidential candidate, and he told us of a Senate Republican lunch in 2014. There, party leaders planned to change the voting rules for an increase in the federal debt ceiling.
TED CRUZ: That Tuesday lunch began with our leadership saying, we're asking every Republican senator here to affirmatively consent to lower the threshold to take up the debt ceiling from 60 votes to 50 votes.
INSKEEP: The change meant that no Republican would have to join the effort to pass the debt ceiling hike. Sen. Cruz describes Republican thinking this way.
CRUZ: The Democrats will have the votes to do it on their own, which means all of us Republicans can vote no. And we can go home and tell our constituents we opposed the thing we just consented to allow happen.
INSKEEP: Cruz accuses his party leaders of mendacity. He says they're misleading voters. NPR's Ron Elving says lawmakers were working around people like Ted Cruz.
ELVING: And that is a Washington solution. Ted Cruz is not wrong about that.
INSKEEP: Lawmakers have used variations on this solution over the years. A dramatic one came in the debt ceiling confrontation in 2011. Congress approved a rule. It let President Obama raise the debt ceiling, even as majorities in Congress voted their disapproval. The writer Norm Ornstein views this philosophically.
ORNSTEIN: What Republicans in Congress have tried to do, the leaders, who first and foremost are pragmatists, they've got to find ways to accommodate the rowdy, radical wing of their party and yet still keep disaster from befalling them by bringing the place to a halt or having them blamed for terrible things that happen.
INSKEEP: Isn't there a long tradition of lawmakers finding ways that they can vote no when they mean yes?
ORNSTEIN: This is called passing the buck and pointing the finger, and it is a long tradition.
INSKEEP: For generations, Democrats and Republicans alike found ways to let individual lawmakers vote no if their votes were not really need. Today's partisan atmosphere leads to more dramatic tactics. Certain mechanisms let a whole party vote no without affecting the outcome.
ORNSTEIN: If you didn't come up with mechanisms, you could have not just a sort of gridlock but a real gridlock, and it could lead to catastrophic results.
INSKEEP: Lawmakers will use such a mechanism for the Iran vote this month. And then another confrontation looms over the federal budget. It is possible that lawmakers could find agreement not on substance but on how they vote. It's a representative democracy where the majority rules, except when the majority agrees in advance that they won't.
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