INDIANAPOLIS — Retired U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar was reminded of how difficult governing can be when he toured the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia this week with Secretary of State John Kerry.
The Indiana Republican was there to endorse the controversial Iran nuclear agreement forged by Kerry, a Democrat, and vehemently opposed by congressional Republicans — including Lugar’s former colleague, Sen. Dan Coats.
Inside the center, Lugar said he and Kerry saw life-size bronze statutes of founding fathers who labored to forge the U.S. Constitution.
Among them were statues of three delegates who refused to sign what they considered a flawed document.
“It was a reminder that there are no perfect deals,” he said later.
It’s been more than three years since Lugar, 83, lost a bid for a seventh term to Republican primary challenger Richard Mourdock. But he remains actively engaged in national politics as an elder statesman with a voice that still carries weight.
Lugar’s public endorsement of the Obama administration’s agreement with Iran, which seeks to curb that country’s nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions, made headlines.
Lugar defends the deal as a starting point of an ongoing effort to monitor and enforce the complex terms aimed at stopping the development of an Iranian bomb.
He’s also caught attention for blaming hardened opposition to the deal on the hyper-partisanship of Washington, D.C., which he calls extreme and dangerous.
This week, Lugar and a longtime Democratic ally, retired Sen. Sam Nunn, of Georgia, penned an editorial for Politico in which they argued that rejecting the agreement because of its imperfections would be folly.
Lugar and Nunn were co-authors of the 1991 nuclear threat reduction program, the Nunn-Lugar Act, that authorized funds to secure and destroy thousands of nuclear weapons in countries of the former Soviet Union.
“(Our) experiences underscored for us that arms control agreements are rarely finished absolutes,” they wrote.
The view contradicts that of Republican lawmakers who control the House and Senate and ardently oppose the Iran agreement, convinced that it leaves Iran with the capability to develop nuclear weapons.
As of late this week, Republicans appeared to lack the necessary votes to stop a resolution on the agreement when Congress takes it up later this month.
“Partisanship is clearly a factor,” Lugar said. “From the beginning, when President Obama first took office, there was a desire on the part of some Republicans to stop him from accomplishing anything.”
Indiana’s Democratic senator, Joe Donnelly, stands with Lugar.
But not Indiana’s other sitting senator.
Coats, 72, a former ambassador to Germany who helped lead a 2009 task force to identify the threats posed by a nuclear weapons-capable Iran, declined to comment directly on Lugar’s statements about partisanship.
But, in an editorial released Friday, Coats acknowledged Lugar as a “respected political figure” who’d taken a deliberate approach to the Iran agreement.
Coats described “intense” pressure on lawmakers before the vote.
Coats, who is not seeking re-election, said public debate is healthy and essential though, like Lugar, he hopes to see partisanship fade.
“It is vital that the American people and their elected representatives see this Iran deal with a clear, unprejudiced, nonpartisan eye,” he wrote.
Still, Coats argued, the analysis by supporters of the deal is faulty.
Lugar says the proposed multi-nation agreement — finalized in July by Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the United States — is “the best chance to stop an Iranian bomb without another war in the Middle East.”
Coats takes a grimmer view. Distrustful of Iran, he worries that the agreement falls far short of requiring Iran to dismantle its nuclear enrichment facilities.
The idea that rejecting the deal will lead to war, he said, is “fear-mongering.”
While Lugar and Coats agree that they’d like debate over the agreement to lose its partisan bite, Lugar said he fears that can’t happen.
Next week, as lawmakers return from a five-week recess, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is scheduled to headline a rally outside the Capitol to denounce the deal.
Trump has described the agreement as being “negotiated by totally incompetent people.”
Lugar says that kind of rhetoric doesn’t help.
“This is very serious issue,” he said. “But they have the right of free speech.”
— Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com