WASHINGTON (AP) — Debate on the Iran nuclear deal morphed into full-blown political spectacle Wednesday as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz held a rally to denounce it, Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech to praise it and congressional Republicans turned on each other angrily as they grasped for a last-ditch play to stop it.
The maneuvering and speechifying did little to change the reality: Barring unlikely success of an eleventh-hour gambit by the House, the international accord aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions will move ahead. Even if Congress succeeds in passing legislation aimed at undermining it by next week's deadline, President Barack Obama would veto such a measure and minority Democrats command enough votes to sustain him.
But that seemed only to inflame GOP opponents as Congress convened for its first full day back after a five-week summer recess that hardened partisan divisions around the accord. Republicans turned up the rhetoric against the deal at a rally outside the Capitol, while inside, House conservatives searched for a legislative way to undermine it.
Across town, Clinton praised the accord. "Diplomacy is not the pursuit of perfection. It is the balancing of risk," she said in a speech at the Brookings Institution. Either the deal moves forward, she said, or "we turn down a more dangerous path leading to a far less certain and riskier future."
The message was far different at the Capitol rally headlined by GOP presidential candidates Trump and Cruz denouncing the Iran accord, which Republicans contend will not stop the Iranians from developing a nuclear bomb. The gathering featured conservative favorites, including former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, in front of several thousand people who waved flags and banners denouncing Obama. One placard showed a smiling president alongside a billowing mushroom cloud over New York City.
"Never ever, ever in my life have I seen a deal so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran," Trump told the crowd. "We are led by very, very stupid people. We cannot let it continue."
The congressional resolution, on its own, wouldn't reverse a multi-country agreement already blessed by the United Nations. A vote of disapproval, however, could signal Congress' readiness to introduce new sanctions at the risk of causing Tehran — and other governments — to abandon the accord and blame the U.S. for the failure.
Along with the criticism of Obama, the crowd outside the Capitol booed lustily as speakers mentioned Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Conservatives long dissatisfied with their leadership demanded that McConnell and Boehner come up with a way to stop the deal.
No such solution seemed likely given strong Democratic unity and Obama's veto pen. But the conservative resistance was enough to force House GOP leaders to cancel the start of debate on a disapproval resolution and call an emergency meeting on how to move forward.
Leaders hastily developed a Plan B involving votes on several related measures: one to specify that the Obama administration had not properly submitted the accord to Congress; a second, bound-to-fail vote to approve the deal and a third to prevent Obama from lifting congressionally mandated sanctions on Iran. Debate and votes were to begin Thursday.
"We need to pull every tool out of the toolbox to stop this bad deal," said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas.
The rebels were egged on by Sen. Cruz, who has repeatedly allied himself with House conservatives to thwart the plans of GOP leaders. He and others argued that the disapproval vote should be delayed, contending the 60-day deadline clock on the congressional review period can't really start until lawmakers get information on separate agreements negotiated with Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Yet the maneuvering appeared to be moving forward without the blessing of the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, which has led opposition to the accord. An official with the group said its preference was for a straight vote on the disapproval resolution — something Senate Democrats are trying to block with a filibuster.
The fate of that effort remained uncertain. In the Senate debate did begin on the resolution, with some describing the vote, which could occur yet this week, as among the most consequential in their lifetimes. Underscoring the occasion, McConnell urged all senators to be present, though most Democrats and some Republicans ignored the request.
Congress has until Sept. 17 — a week from Thursday — to pass a disapproval resolution of the Iran deal, under legislation passed earlier this year giving lawmakers the right to review it. Republican leaders did not sound receptive to conservative attempts to change the terms of the debate.
"Right now we've got strong bipartisan opposition to this deal. It's my opinion that we're far better off focusing on the substance" rather than the timing of a vote, said GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The White House and Democratic lawmakers were dismissive of the conservative moves. "Sounds like a plan hatched up at Tortilla Coast on a Tuesday night," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, naming a restaurant near the Capitol where congressional conservatives meet.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher, Matthew Daly and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.