Iran Vote Will Test Corker’s Political Skills

Iran Vote Will Test Corker’s Political Skills

Days ahead of a pivotal vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a series of new amendments have emerged that could sink a contentious bill on Iran’s nuclear program and derail congressional efforts to block an emerging deal with Tehran.

The bill, authored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), would suspend the president’s authority to lift sanctions on Iran for 60 days as Congress prepares an up-or-down vote on a final deal. Despite a White House promise to veto the bill, nine Democrats and more than 50 Republicans have pledged to support the legislation, bringing Republicans extremely close to a veto-proof majority.

But that strong Senate support could evaporate overnight as Republicans and Democrats seek to amend the legislation in radically different ways.

The Tuesday vote has become a proxy war for supporters and critics of the April 2 preliminary agreement struck by the United States, Tehran, and five world powers that would ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program. And the broader battle over the nuclear agreement is just getting started: On Thursday, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded immediate sanctions relief as soon as the final deal is implemented this summer. The United States and the other world powers say that sanctions relief will come only when Iran complies with the agreement’s strictures, such as reducing stockpiles of uranium and cutting the number of centrifuges.

Lawmakers who oppose the agreement, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.), want to pass amendments that would pile additional restrictions on the president’s ability to lift economic sanctions on Iran in the event of a final deal.

Those in support of the agreement, such as Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), want to water down aspects of the Corker bill they fear could blow up the international negotiations, such as a quarterly certification process on whether Iran is supporting terrorism against the United States.

The push and pull of Democrats and Republicans places an immense amount of pressure on Corker, the committee’s chairman, who doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize his bill’s prospects for garnering a veto-proof majority.

But it’s a balancing act the congenial Tennessee lawmaker may be able to pull off given his credibility among Republicans and cordial overtures to wavering Democrats in recent days.

Republicans hold a razor-thin 10-9 majority on the committee. That gives Corker the power to bury amendments that are too far to the right, which could risk alienating a critical mass of Democrats, or too far to the left, which could spark a conservative backlash. But wielding that power is almost guaranteed to ruffle some feathers.

“If Chairman Corker does that, he’ll make no one happy,” said a GOP congressional aide. “Yet that may be the best way to preserve the bill’s relatively bipartisan balance and keep the door open for a veto-proof majority.”

Rubio’s amendments, among other things, would require the United States to continue enforcing existing sanctions on Iran because of its “ongoing support for terrorism” and human rights abuses. Given the regime’s longstanding support for Hamas and Hezbollah, that amendment would likely blow up a deal and thereby be viewed as a poison pill by Democrats. A Rubio spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Coons’s amendment would scrap a provision in the Corker bill that requires the administration to periodically certify that Iran does not directly support terrorism against the United States. The White House opposes this provision because it widens the focus of the negotiations beyond Iran’s nuclear program, something it says is a deal-breaker for Tehran.

A Senate Republican aide speaking to Foreign Policy said the Coons amendment has a decent chance of passing the committee, but other Democratic amendments won’t fare as well, such as ones offered by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.

One of Boxer’s amendments would strike the Corker bill and replace it with her own brainchild, the Iran Congressional Oversight Act of 2015. That bill would not block a deal, but require the administration to regularly report to Congress on Iranian compliance — a measure that doesn’t go far enough for Republicans.

Committee Democrats are also offering amendments that would tweak the Corker provision that requires the administration to hold off on sanctions relief for 60 days while Congress deliberates the merits of a final deal. An amendment by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) would reduce the congressional review period from 60 calendar days to 10 “session days” (i.e., days that Congress is in session). An amendment by Coons reduces the review period to 30 calendar days. It’s unclear what success those amendments might have. One Republican aide characterized the Coons amendment as a “non-starter” because it would not give Congress enough time to vote up or down on a final deal given the tight summer legislative schedule.

Still, if Republicans hope to build a veto-proof majority, they’ll inevitably have to make some major concessions to liberals — especially as the White House increases the pressure on congressional Democrats to vote against any bill.

“The White House is really starting to twist the nuts on this,” said one Democratic aide.

How much Corker appreciates this dynamic will likely guide his voting on Tuesday.

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