A Senate committee unanimously adopted a bill Tuesday that would give Congress a vote on any nuclear deal with Iran, adding a new hurdle to the Obama administration's effort to complete a binding agreement with Tehran by this summer.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted, 19 to 0, after Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman, and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking minority member, agreed to water down some provisions that the White House had most disliked.
President Obama withdrew his threat to veto the bill after it became clear the compromise measure had overwhelming support from Democrats as well as Republicans. It is expected to easily pass the Senate this month unless new amendments from GOP critics undermine the bipartisan support it now has.
Other than giving Congress a role in the process, the actual effect of the bill remains unclear. If Congress voted to disapprove a deal, that could threaten an agreement. But Obama could veto any such resolution, and it's unclear that critics could line up enough Democrats to override him.
The White House has conducted a full-bore lobbying campaign this week to build support for the proposed nuclear deal. Obama met with leaders of major Jewish groups at the White House, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz delivered closed-door briefings to members of the House on Monday night and to the full Senate on Tuesday morning.
The bill passed by the Senate committee would give lawmakers, many of whom are deeply skeptical of negotiations with Iran, an up-or-down vote on whether punishing economic sanctions imposed by Congress should be lifted as part of a final nuclear deal. That is considerably less than a yes-or-no vote on the deal itself, as some lawmakers had sought. It does not cover sanctions imposed by executive action or by international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council.
The bill blocks the administration from lifting the sanctions while Congress is considering its action, a period that could take up to 52 days.
But the compromise measure softened language that would make the lifting of U.S. sanctions dependent on Iran ending support for terrorism, an issue that has not been part of the last 18 months of intense negotiations.
The United States and five other world powers — Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — are negotiating a deal that would lift sanctions on Iran if it accepts restrictions aimed at keeping it from obtaining a nuclear bomb. Diplomats completed a preliminary agreement April 2 and have set a June 30 deadline to complete a final accord.
Obama has urged Congress to not intervene while negotiations are still underway. Officials have argued that new restrictions could convince the Iranians that the administration can't fulfill its promises and drive them from the bargaining table.
Lawmakers of both parties insisted that the bill allows them to exercise appropriate oversight over the agreement, although it would remain an executive agreement rather than a formal treaty, as some lawmakers have demanded.
The bill is a "way to influence [the negotiation], to get it to a better place," Corker said. He called the bill a "really sound piece of legislation."
Members of Congress are uniform in their eagerness to appear tough on Iran, and Democrats lined up to agree.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called it "wonderful" that the White House and the committee had reached agreement on the bill.
"The administration has done a good job, but they have to understand there are many people that still have some doubts and questions," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "I'm pleased that the president is in a compromising mood."
Analysts said the compromise lowered the risk of a congressional disruption in the final sprint for a deal.
The bill is "not a death blow to the negotiations, not even close to a death blow," said Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department and Pentagon official now at the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security. "But it's another unnecessary hurdle in a highly complicated negotiation."
It remains unlikely that Congress could kill a final agreement that the White House supports, he said. Not only would that require 67 votes to overcome an Obama veto, but it would also put Congress in the position of rejecting an agreement that, by then, would have been agreed to by most of America's major allies — a prospect that even some Republican critics of the administration consider unpalatable. Moreover, Democrats would be far less likely to override a veto than to vote for the Corker bill, Goldenberg said.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential lobby, applauded adoption of the bill, saying it was "imperative for Congress to adopt its historic foreign policy role."
But the National Iranian American Council, a strong advocate for the diplomacy, said the legislation "will make already difficult negotiations with Iran even more difficult."
Supporters of the negotiations were buoyed by the announcement of a preliminary deal, the so-called framework agreement, on April 2. But they have a long list of contentious issues to resolve, and new threats to the diplomacy continue to emerge.
The Iranian leadership is insisting that no deal is possible unless all sanctions are lifted when implementation begins and that United Nations nuclear inspectors will have no access to Iranian military bases where nuclear work has been done.
The White House insists that sanctions relief must be phased in and that international inspections should not be limited.
The diplomatic bloc negotiating with Iran faced internal pressures as well.
On Monday, Russia announced it had approved the sale of S-300 antiaircraft systems to Iran. If installed, they could make it harder for the West or Israel to eliminate Iranian nuclear facilities with airstrikes if officials are convinced Iran is secretly building a bomb.
The bill approved Tuesday had several major changes from an earlier version.
It eliminated language that required Obama to certify, before any nuclear deal, that Iran had stopped terrorist activities.
It also cut from 60 days to 30 days the time Congress would get to consider action on the agreement. An additional period would be added for the president to decide whether to accept or veto a resolution of disapproval, if Congress takes that vote.
It was not immediately clear whether the congressional review period would disrupt the schedule for implementation of any deal. That won't be clarified until the negotiations are completed, Goldenberg noted.
White House aides said Obama withdrew his veto threat because the most objectionable provisions in the bill were sufficiently weakened. But Corker said Obama recognized the bill had overwhelming support. Among those who backed it was Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a strong White House supporter.
Cardin said Corker is committed to keeping the bill in its current form, but "there's still a challenge" from other legislators.
Some Democratic committee members said it was far preferable to have the Senate agree to review the deal through the procedures set up under the bill adopted Tuesday, than risk some of the other options that members had discussed. That outcome would be "messy, unpredictable," said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).