WASHINGTON – Legislation empowering Congress to reject an emerging Iran nuclear pact is expected to sail through both houses of Congress, leaving President Barack Obama with the tough task of selling the deal to skeptical lawmakers.
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"I don't know how you cut a deal with the devil and think the devil is going to keep his end of the deal," House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday after Obama bowed to pressure from Republicans and Democrats and agreed to sign compromise legislation.
The legislation, unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would give lawmakers a say on what could be a historic deal aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In exchange, the influential Islamic nation in the Middle East would get relief from economic sanctions stifling its economy.
The rare and reluctant agreement between the president and the Republican-led Congress came after the White House maintained for weeks that congressional interference could jeopardize sensitive negotiations with Tehran. The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China reached a preliminary agreement with Iran on April 2 to curb its nuclear program and hope to finalize a pact by June 30.
Despite the resistance from the White House, lawmakers from both parties insisted that Congress have a formal role in reviewing and possibly voting down any deal.
"I have always supported congressional review of any final agreement with Iran," said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, who emphasized that the bill will not permit any legislative action until after the White House presents Congress with any final deal that can be reached to rein in Iran's nuclear program.
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"If a final agreement with Iran is received in a timely manner, Congress will have 30 calendar days for an orderly and thoughtful review. If an agreement with Iran goes into effect, then this bill ensures an ongoing oversight role for Congress and provides for expedited procedures to snap back sanctions if Iran breaches the agreement," Cardin said.
Echoing Boehner's skepticism, Cardin said "there is no trust when it comes to Iran." He said that's why the final agreement must be verifiable and transparent, and that it's clear that any violations would result in the restoration of the strongest possible sanctions.
The committee approved the compromise bill, 19-0, shortly after White House spokesman Josh Earnest conveyed the president's decision to remove his veto threat. The bill is now likely to clear both houses of Congress. It's expected to come before the full Senate as soon as next week.
Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker said Secretary of State John Kerry was lobbying against the measure on Capitol Hill just a few hours before the vote. Corker, R-Tenn., said the White House's sudden support was dictated by the number of senators — Republicans and Democrats — backing the measure.
"This bill always has been about allowing Congress the opportunity to review any final deal to ensure it is verifiable and enforceable before the president could act to unwind the sanctions that Congress put in place," said Corker, who pushed his GOP and Democratic colleagues to reach a compromise on a hotly partisan issue.
"I am hopeful that the strong, unanimous vote in the committee will build even more bipartisan support for this legislation in the full Senate and in the House of Representatives."
The White House said that the changes made to the bill made it possible for Obama to support it. The president's foreign policy legacy would be burnished by a deal with Iran.
Earnest said the White House is not "particularly thrilled" about the legislation. He said the administration would withhold final judgment on the bill while it works its way through Congress, but that in its current form, Obama would sign it.
"Despite the things about it that we don't like, enough substantial changes have been made that the president would be willing to sign it," Earnest said.
Not that much was changed.
The revised bill shortens from 60 to 30 days the time that Congress will have to review any final nuclear deal. (The review period could stretch to more than 80 days depending on various factors, such as when Congress gets details of any agreement.)
During the congressional review period, Obama would be able to lift sanctions imposed through presidential action, but would be blocked from easing any of the sanctions imposed by Congress. Congressional sanctions are among the toughest because they target key Iranian economic sectors and its central bank.
The committee also struck language that would have required the president to certify that Iran was not directly supporting or carrying out terrorism against the U.S. or Americans anywhere in the world. That would be a tall order and the administration opposed that provision. The committee substituted weaker language that underscores congressional concern about Iran's support of terrorist activities.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., tried to add the certification back in, but his amendment — the sole one of the day — was voted down 13 to 6 because proponents of the revised measure deemed it a deal-killer.
Other GOP senators backed off their anti-Iran amendments.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who announced his candidacy for president on Monday, had proposed an amendment that would require Iran's leaders to accept Israel's right to exist. Rubio said his amendment probably could have passed in the committee, but ultimately "could imperil the entire arrangement."
Rubio said the new version has language on Israel that "is better than not having it at all." He said his original amendment might still come up during a debate by the full Senate.
While the White House and Congress made their way onto the same page with the bill, Obama's standoff with lawmakers over the Iran nuclear talks is far from over.
If a final deal is reached, Obama still retains his right to veto any attempt by Congress to disapprove it. To override a veto, opponents would have to muster a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, meaning some Democrats would have to oppose their president to undermine a deal.
Shoring up support on the House side, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who opposed the original bill as "harmful to the negotiations," sent a letter to colleagues late Tuesday expressing support for the compromise.