President relents on Iran bill

 

Dropping months of opposition, the White House on Tuesday said President Obama would sign legislation all but guaranteeing a vote for Congress on a nuclear deal with Iran.

The endorsement was a significant victory for Republicans, who for months have criticized Obama’s negotiations with Tehran and demanded a role for lawmakers.

ADVERTISEMENT

It was also a climb-down for the White House, which had repeatedly threatened to veto legislation drafted by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

“I think this puts Congress in its rightful role,” Corker said Tuesday, just before the Foreign Relations panel unanimously approved the measure.

The administration had warned that the Corker bill could scuttle talks with Iran on a deal that Obama views as an important part of his second-term legacy.

Negotiators from the United States, Iran and five other countries reached a framework deal earlier this month that would lift U.S. and international sanctions against Iran in exchange for concessions on that country’s nuclear program.

Talks with Iran are set to continue as negotiators add details to the framework, which has been described differently by leaders in Tehran and Washington. The negotiators are working to meet a June 30 deadline for a final deal.

The White House dropped its opposition to Corker’s bill after the Tennessee Republican reached a deal to make changes to his legislation with Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on his panel.

Some of the changes allowed the White House to portray the final deal as protecting the president’s authority to conduct foreign policy.

“The president would be willing to sign the proposed compromise that is working its way through the committee today,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at his daily briefing.

“Despite the things about it that we don’t like, enough substantial changes have been made” for the White House to support it, he added.

The White House was under pressure to negotiate with Republicans, given the support for Corker’s original legislation from Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and other Democrats. This had raised real questions about whether Democrats could sustain a veto. 

Corker said Tuesday that he believed the White House backed down after realizing the “number of senators that were going to support this legislation.” 

Cardin, who had been in contact with the White House during the negotiations, put a different spin on the events, saying the changes made ensured a vote on the bill would not be “a vote on the merits of the agreement.”

He also hailed the legislation as a “thoughtful and a meaningful way” for Congress to weigh in on the Iran negotiations.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Relations panel, argued the deal would make it easier for the United States to win concessions from Iran — something both Cardin and Corker said had been one of their goals.

“Senator Corker’s legislation, which would rightly give Congress a say on this agreement after negotiations are complete, strengthens the administration’s hand at the negotiating table,” Royce said.

Other Republicans, however, offered some criticism of the legislation.

“I would rather have a role than no role,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). But, he added: “It is a role with very little teeth.”

In addition to Cardin, the Democrats on the panel supporting the bill were Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Chris Coons (Del.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Ed Markey (Mass.).

House Democrats offered support for the measure too, which could pave the way for quick passage. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have demanded a greater voice in the high-stakes nuclear talks and GOP leaders in both chambers are eyeing quick floor consideration.

Under the new bill, Congress would have 30 days to review a nuclear deal once it is submitted by Obama — a sharp difference from the 60-day period in Corker’s earlier bill.

The president would have to submit the deal by July 9 to meet this expedited timeframe.

Within the 30-day period, Congress could pass a resolution of approval or disapproval.

If a resolution of disapproval were to become law, it would prevent Obama from waiving congressional sanctions against Iran while he is in office.

The disapproval resolution would face some tough hurdles before becoming law, however.

It would be subject to a Senate filibuster, and Obama could veto it. The House and Senate would need two-thirds majorities to overcome a veto — a high bar for Republicans in both chambers. And it would set up a potentially dangerous vote for members a year before the 2016 elections.

However, the deal would also meet the demands of Republicans and Democrats that Congress have a say in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. 

“Let’s send a message to Tehran that sanctions relief is not a given and not a prize for signing on the dotted line,” Menendez said.

Ben Kamisar contributed.