Cotton won a subcommittee gavel on the Senate Armed Services Committee shortly after he was sworn into office. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
As an unapologetic neoconservative hawk, it perhaps came as no surprise to Senate Republicans last week when Arkansas freshman Tom Cotton started circulating his five-paragraph missive to Iran’s leadership.
“We’re all aligned that we do not want a nuclear Iran,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who confirmed to CQ Roll Call that he was the first of the 46 Republicans who joined Cotton on the letter. “That’s what this is all about. I applaud his leadership in offering the letter — but we’re all aligned.”
All 11 of Cotton’s fellow Republican freshmen in the Senate signed onto the letter, including fellow military veterans Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska. Like Cotton, military service played a major role in each of their campaigns.
Fellow freshman Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., praised Cotton’s “leadership and courage,” when asked about his decision to sign. “I think that we’re getting a discussion going that’s very important and I think that the American people are interested in, too. So, [I] fully support him — that’s why I signed onto the letter.”
Another rookie to the chamber, Republican Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, capped his thoughts on the letter with: “So, good job, Tom.” Cassidy, who served with Cotton in the House prior to winning a Senate seat, told CQ Roll Call that the two have a good relationship, but shied away from the suggestion that his colleague stands out as a leader in the freshman class.
“No, I think that everybody has their area of interest … I mean, it’s nothing against [Cotton],” Cassidy said. “Everybody has their area, right? What is your committee? What is your natural interest? He comes from being a war veteran, and so he’s of course naturally interested in the Middle East, so I think it’s natural for him to take an interest in this.”
In a noteworthy move, Cotton was appointed chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee at the start of the 114th Congress. He made waves in January with a speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation blasting the White House’s attempts to negotiate with Iran. The Harvard-educated hawk, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has also proposed curtailing the president’s authority to waive new sanctions against Iran.
“I think his experience as a veteran is a great asset to the United States Senate and to our country,” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who also emphasized that Republicans backing the bill are all aligned on Cotton’s message.
The GOP senators who didn’t sign have been clear about where they diverged from Cotton.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine expressed worries about the message that Cotton penned. For one, there were some “technical glitches with the letter,” Collins said. “We vote whether or not to approve or reject a resolution of ratification.”
Another was the tone, which Democrats characterized as gratuitous and brazen. Collins said it was “different than I would have used.” But her chief concern was that the letter seemed to undermine the Senate’s role in giving or withholding consent to the president at this critical stage of the negotiations.
“The best way for me to state my position on Iran was to support [Sen. Bob] Corker’s proposal to make sure that Congress approves any deal President Obama makes with Iran,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “I believe all of us in the Republican caucus support that, and a growing number of Democrats, too. So, I think what unites us on the Republican side is our feeling that Congress ought to have a say, and I didn’t see a need to say more than that.”
Many on the left have balked at the letter, bashing it as over the top. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. called it “beneath the dignity of an institution I revere” and said it “ignores two centuries of precedent and threatens to undermine the ability of any future American President.” Obama accused Republicans of making “common cause” with Iranian hardliners, while his spokesman talked of a “rush to war” by the GOP.
But Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, was full of praise Tuesday.
“He clearly took the initiative on that, yes,” Cornyn said, when asked if he was impressed with Cotton’s leadership. “I think, given his background, he’s a great new member … of the Armed Services Committee.”
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