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After A 5-Week Recess, Congress To Start Debate On Iran Nuclear Deal


Congress returns today from its summer recess with a mountain of items to slog through in the weeks ahead. Eating up several days on the Senate floor will be a heated debate over the nuclear deal with Iran, even though that deal's survival is now all but assured. Also on the to-do list - the not so small matter of keeping government open. With us now to talk about the pact, September and fall, is NPR's Ailsa Chang.

Good morning.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about the Iran deal first because of course there has been so much talk about this deal. We now know that there are enough senators who support the deal to keep it alive. And I think that number could keep growing, right?

CHANG: That's right. I mean, for groups against the deal, August was supposed to be a month of rallying, widespread, vigorous opposition, but they never mustered that kind of momentum. The president needed 34 senators to support the deal and he has more than that now. And that number 34 is important because it means even if the Senate managed to pass a measure to reject the deal, the president would veto that measure. And now that there are more than 34 supporting the deal, there aren't enough votes in the Senate to override that veto. So basically, the deal is done.

MONTAGNE: Even though then this is a foregone conclusion that the deal will survive, what, Elsa, the Senate is still going to spend several days on this issue?

CHANG: It could. In part because of a commitment Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made. McConnell promised that because the Iran deal is such a significant foreign policy issue, he is going to hold the debate in kind of an unusual way. He's asked every senator to be at his or her desk during the entire debate, and every senator will get an opportunity to speak. Now, this is actually really rare. Usually when senators are speaking on the floor, they're talking just to C-SPAN cameras and the chamber's almost completely empty. So we could end up seeing a very, very long, drawn-out debate in the Senate, even though it's pretty much guaranteed the Iran deal will go through.

MONTAGNE: And of course that vote has to be held by September 17 - the Iran deal vote. But there is another deadline coming up. That would be September 30, which is the day Congress has to figure out how to fund the government. And how close are they to getting that done?

CHANG: At the moment, not very close. Democrats are demanding that spending caps be lifted for both defense and domestic programs. Republicans, so far, only seem interested in busting those caps for defense programs. So expect a grand negotiation this fall. And in the middle of all of this, expect to be hearing a lot about Planned Parenthood in the coming weeks, about those sting videos, alleging the group illegally profits from sharing fetal tissue. Many conservative Republicans vow they will reject any spending bill that does not defund Planned Parenthood. And Democrats have made it very clear that any legislation that does defund the group would be totally unacceptable.

MONTAGNE: So does that mean that we should be thinking about a government shutdown?

CHANG: Well, McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have repeatedly pledged this year that there will be no government shutdowns. And McConnell has also said there will be no default on the national debt either. The Treasury Department says the country's borrowing limit will need to be raised around November or December or else the U.S. will be unable to meet its obligations. So that fight - that fight over raising the debt ceiling - is going to be looming just as Congress is trying to figure out a way to keep the government funded past September. So it's going to be a really, really busy fall.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang. Thanks very much.

CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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