The U.S. Senate Historian’s Office has so far been unable to find another example in the chamber’s history where one political party openly tried to deal with a foreign power against a presidential policy, as Republicans have attempted in their open letter to Iran this week
The letter sent by 47 Republican senators sets out to instruct Iranian leaders about how the U.S. Constitution works. They wrote that the deal currently being negotiated with their government by the U.S. and western allies, to limit Iran’s nuclear expansion could be undone by Congress.
“We haven’t found a precedent,” said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t a precedent. After 200 years. It’s hard to find anything that unprecedented.”
In the past, Ritchie said, “what usually happened is a senator would sign a ‘round robin’ letter or a sense of the Senate resolution, or write a letter to the president or secretary of State voicing objections to some particular policy.
Individual senators have also on occasion met with the foreign leaders on policy issues, Ritchie said. In this case, he said his office conducted a general search on disarmament issues to see if an episode similar to the Iran letter could be found.
“We really didn’t find anything,” Ritchie said.
Alan K. Henrikson, director of Diplomatic Studies and a professor of diplomatic history at Tufts University, said the Republicans’ letter “undercuts” how America conducts international diplomacy.
“Neither the Senate nor the House has sought to interfere with actual conduct of negotiations by writing an open letter to the leadership of a country with which the U.S. is negotiating,” said Henrikson, who teaches at Tufts’ Fletcher School of international affairs
Republicans have dismissed the response from Democrats and the White House, which view the letter as a not-so-veiled attempt to torpedo the talks, as over the top. “A little hysterical,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
But Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told National Journal, “I can't even imagine the uproar if Democratic senators [had been] writing to Saddam Hussein in the lead up to the Iraq War.”
Seven Republican senators did not sign the letter, including Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The others were: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Dan Coates of Indiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.