The Cable

White House Relents on Iran Bill as Democrats Side With Republicans

Despite weeks of White House opposition, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee struck a deal Tuesday with senior Senate Democrats that would let Congress block President Barack Obama’s potential nuclear accord with Iran.

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Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) speaks with reporters after a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and other Senators on Capitol Hill April 14, 2015 in Washington, DC. US Secretary of State John Kerry, US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and US Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew visited Capitol Hill to brief Senators and House Democrats on the Iran nuclear talks and other issues. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite weeks of White House opposition, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously in support of legislation allowing Congress to review President Barack Obama’s potential nuclear accord with Iran.

The bipartisan vote followed a marathon round of negotiations between committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) that resulted in an amendment package that watered down earlier provisions opposed by the White House.

Just hours ahead of the vote, as key Democrats publicly sided with the Republican majority, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama could support the Senate compromise, even though the administration remains concerned that it could scuttle a final nuclear deal while delicate negotiations are ongoing.

The change of tune reflected the reality that Democrats, under intense pressure from pro-Israel lobbying groups, were prepared to break with the White House in support of congressional review legislation.

“I know they’ve relented because [of] what they believed to be the outcome here,” Corker said during the markup.

If the legislation passes into law, it’s unclear what effect it might have on the ongoing international negotiations between Iran and six world powers, the so-called P5+1. One European diplomat, speaking to Foreign Policy, raised a note of concern. “While the role of Congress in the deal is a matter for the U.S., we hope this Senate compromise will give the P5+1 negotiators the space to reach a final comprehensive agreement,” said the official. 

Corker’s original bill would have prevented the White House from lifting sanctions for 60 days while lawmakers consider giving final approval to the historic, if still tentative, nuclear agreement.

Instead, the compromise bill would shorten the length of the review period from 60 days to 30 days, a key demand from Democrats, and soften a requirement that the administration certify that Tehran has not directly supported terrorist attacks against the United States.

The final deal between Iran and six world powers, which face a June 30 deadline, would limit Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from bruising international sanctions.

“What I’m proud of is we have kept the pure integrity of the process in place, and the president cannot lift [sanctions] while Congress is reviewing,” Corker told reporters on Tuesday, following a classified briefing by Secretary of State John Kerry and other top cabinet officials.

Kerry brushed off questions from reporters as he exited the closed-door briefing, which included Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

The revised Corker bill requires the White House to submit the text of a deal with Iran to Congress five days after the agreement is reached. The White House would also have to include a report by Kerry detailing the international community’s ability to verify Iran’s compliance.

Congress could then vote whether to approve or reject the lifting of sanctions necessary to complete a final nuclear accord. If a deal is made by July, rejecting the lifting of sanctions would put the United States in material breach of its agreements and blow up the deal forged by the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran. But under that scenario, Republicans would be hard-pressed to accumulate enough Democratic votes.

For weeks, Obama and other top officials pledged to veto Corker’s legislation. But a number of hawkish Democrats urged the White House to compromise with Republicans on a bill that would satisfy all sides. Some prominent Democrats — such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York — even pledged to support the original Corker legislation, putting even more pressure on the Obama administration to cut a deal.

Earnest said the White House is waiting to see the final version of the compromise to make sure it is not changed before it is put to a committee vote. He said the Obama administration continues to have concerns about the legislation, but enough changes have been made to the original GOP plan that the new measure is “not entirely unreasonable.”

“What we could be seeing here is the kind of compromise to emerge that the president would be willing to sign.” Earnest told reporters at the White House. By relenting now, the White House could embolden conservative Republicans eager to insert additional amendments when the bill reaches the Senate floor.

Following the briefing, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) warned that a series of Republican amendments could still jeopardize the bill’s bipartisan support in Congress. (Republicans need Democrats to garner the 67 votes required to override a White House veto.)

If Republicans place more restrictions on the president’s ability to reach a deal with Iran, “I would drop off in a second,” Coons told reporters. During the markup, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also pledged to do everything in her power to oppose the Corker bill if controversial Republican amendments are added in the coming weeks.

This is almost certain to happen when the bill reaches the Senate floor. At the Tuesday session, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) telegraphed his intentions to offer an amendment that would require Iran to recognize the state of Israel — a provision that Tehran would likely consider a non-starter.

If Republican leaders want to preserve the bill’s bipartisan appeal, they’ll likely need to bury a number of amendments offered by their conservative peers — a dynamic that will test the political acumen of House and Senate leaders.

This post has been updated. 

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John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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