WASHINGTON (AP) — The rookie Republican senator leading the effort to torpedo an agreement with Iran is an Army veteran with a Harvard law degree who has a full record of tough rhetoric against President Barack Obama's foreign policy.
But none of Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton's previous forays into national security made quite the impression, or raised as many hackles, as the letter he authored this week lecturing Iran's leaders on American democracy. That's because this time, 46 of his fellow Republicans signed onto the document — from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to some of Cotton's fellow freshman — and the attempt to invalidate Obama's international effort to strike an international deal on limiting Iran's nuclear capability.
"You may not fully understand our constitutional system," the letter begins, before describing any deal signed by Obama as a "mere executive agreement" that a future president, or Congress, could theoretically overturn. "President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades."
However long Cotton's Senate career — now nine weeks old — he's made a vivid early impression.
"He's a person that you never have to put down as 'undecided,'" said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
Democrats howled at what some considered a clear effort by an opposition party to undermine the talks. Seven of his Republican colleagues refused to sign, concerned variously over the letter's tone and propriety.
"These are tough enough negotiations as it is. I just didn't think it was useful," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
From the well of the Senate on Monday, Democratic leader Harry Reid glanced up toward the rostrum where Cotton, 37, was taking his turn presiding over the chamber.
"The letter," the 75-year-old Reid said, jabbing a finger in the air, was written "by a United States senator who took his oath of office 62 days ago (and) is a kind of pettiness that diminishes us as a country to the eyes of the world."
A day later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, groused, "Here you have a man who is two months in the Senate leading this charge."
It was a global debut, of sorts, for the son of farmers and expectant dad who helped Republicans gain a seat — and the Senate majority — in last November's midterm elections. Cotton, who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and held a House seat for two years, handily ousted two-term Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor after touring the state in a bus decorated with a giant boot print on the front, the Arkansas flag and camouflage.
The goal of the letter, Cotton has said, was to let Iran's leaders know that the GOP-led Congress intends to have a say in any deal over the country's nuclear capabilities. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and others assailed the letter, and Iran's foreign minister dismissed the letter as a "propaganda ploy."
Cotton fired back by quoting Obama's former defense secretary Robert Gates as saying Biden had been wrong on foreign policy for decades.
Cotton's unapologetic rhetoric isn't new.
Arguing earlier this year against closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Cotton said there aren't enough terror suspects being held there, but the ones that are imprisoned "can rot in hell."
In the House, Cotton gained attention for a proposal that would have extended sanctions on Iranian human rights violators to their families — an idea that has been criticized as eliminating due process. Cotton, who withdrew the proposal, has defended the idea and said it would only apply to sanctions on Iranians, not American citizens.
Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.