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White House courts key GOP senator on Iran nuclear deal

The White House is aggressively courting Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE as it seeks to buy time for the final stretch of negotiations with Iran over a nuclear deal.

The Tennessee Republican helms the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and is working to assemble a veto-proof majority for legislation that would allow members of Congress to review any nuclear agreement.

Yet White House officials view Corker as someone they can work with.

Corker, a centrist who is not up for reelection until 2018, was one of seven GOP senators who did not sign a controversial letter to Iran’s leaders warning that Congress could invalidate any nuclear agreement. He also agreed to delay a vote on the approval measure last month as negotiators worked to hammer out an outline of a deal.

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While Corker will be under pressure from his own party to move forward with legislation the administration warns would kill the nuclear talks with Iran, White House officials hope they can convince the senator to give them time.

They’ve noted that Corker did not condemn the framework deal announced last week, unlike many of his Republican colleagues.

While President Obama has yet to talk with Corker, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken called him last week to discuss the deal.

And Obama singled him out for praise in a New York Times interview over the weekend, calling him a “good and decent man” who is “sincerely concerned about this issue.”

The charm offensive continued on Monday, when White House press secretary Josh Earnest mentioned Corker as “someone who is engaged in this process in a pretty principled way.”

“I think he deserves some credit for that,” Earnest said. “There are not a lot of other members in his conference who have done that.”

Corker has been getting attention from the administration since the preliminary Iran deal was unveiled last week, taking calls from both Blinken and Energy Secretary Ernest MonizErnest Jeffrey MonizOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court declines to hear challenge to Obama marine monument designation | Interior reverses course on tribal ownership of portion of Missouri river | White House climate adviser meets with oil and gas companies Moniz: Texas blackouts show need to protect infrastructure against climate change The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Back to the future on immigration, Afghanistan, Iran MORE.

It’s not clear whether the White House’s charm offensive will succeed.

The senator pledged on Sunday he would forge ahead with his approval bill despite a veto threat from the White House, saying that a non-binding vote would be unacceptable.

Earnest on Monday said Congress should hold off on any Iran-related legislation until the June 30 deadline for a final pact. He accused Republicans of using Corker’s bill as cover to “try to undermine the agreement.” 

Corker said he is just a few votes away from a veto-proof majority for his legislation, which would give Congress 60 days to review a nuclear agreement before any congressional sanctions on Iran are lifted. He plans to hold a committee vote on the legislation on April 14.

“There is strong bipartisan support for a binding vote by Congress,” Corker said on Fox News Sunday. “This is not something — look, the president needs to sell this to the American people and Congress needs to be involved in this way.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPortman: Republicans are 'absolutely' committed to bipartisan infrastructure bill Graham calls voting rights bill 'biggest power grab' in history The wild card that might save Democrats in the midterms MORE (R-Ky.) backed Corker on Monday, and said the chamber would “respond legislatively” to the Iran framework by giving Congress a say in the deal. 

Earnest said the administration would continue its outreach to Congress, but that it remains opposed to Corker’s bill.

“We are going to hold up our end of the bargain here, but the lines we have drawn are firm, and we are going to stick to them,” Earnest said. 

Complicating its attempt to convince Congress to wait, the White House has not suggested a specific alternative to Corker’s legislation it could support. 

Earnest on Monday acknowledged one major unresolved issue in the Iran talks is the pace of sanctions relief. Iran wants a large portion of sanctions lifted almost immediately after the deal is struck, while the U.S. wants them gradually eliminated.

The White House spokesman said the uncertainty is one reason why Congress should hold off on legislation.

“Maybe they should just wait until June, because this way they can save themselves from having to criticize an agreement they would later support,” Earnest said.

But supporters of Corker’s bill argue the threat of a vote helps the U.S. negotiate from a position of strength.

“They get to say to the Iranians, just like the Iranians say to us, ‘We’ve got to sell this to the Congress. This deal has to be approved by the Iranian parliament,’ ” Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Democrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination Democrats scramble to unify before election bill brawl MORE (D-Va.) said Monday on CNN. “If Congress establishes clear rules for the road about how we will engage, that will not weaken our negotiating hand, it will strengthen it.”