Iran nuclear framework faces skepticism from Congress

U.S. lawmakers plan to proceed with bills that could derail a nuclear accord with Iran

With a path newly in sight to a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear threat, President Obama immediately moved Thursday to thwart interference from U.S. lawmakers lining up against the fragile accord.

Shortly after international negotiators reached a framework to guide final negotiations to curtail Iran's nuclear program, Obama argued that the agreement is the best option for heading off another war in the Middle East or a nuclear arms race in the region. He warned lawmakers that if they obstruct the talks, they will imperil America's status as a world leader.

"If Congress kills this deal, not based on expert analysis, and without offering any reasonable alternative, then it's the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy," Obama said in a Rose Garden address aimed at blunting expected criticism from Capitol Hill. "International unity will collapse, and the path to conflict will widen."

The skepticism from Congress is shaping up to be the next major hurdle for Obama as he pursues a legacy-shaping foreign policy achievement, an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear activity in exchange for easing sanctions on its economy. Negotiators from Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., have until the end of June to close the deal.

But in less than two weeks, Congress returns to Washington from a recess and key lawmakers have pledged to take up legislation that could imperil the final accord.

The Senate has twice this year postponed consideration of Iran-related bills, one to essentially require congressional ratification of a potential deal, and another to impose new sanctions in the event Iran proves unwilling to abide by it. The delays came at the urging of the White House, which sought more time to let the talks progress, but may have only helped foster a bipartisan consensus on both proposals.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and lead sponsor of a bill that could require a congressional vote on any final agreement, said in a statement that the president should not bypass Congress. His committee will move forward with plans to vote on his legislation April 14.

"The American people, through their elected representatives, must have the opportunity to weigh in to ensure the deal truly can eliminate the threat of Iran's nuclear program and hold the regime accountable," he said.

Republican critics grew more convinced this week that the president was willing to concede too much to Iran as talks dragged on past a self-imposed deadline.

Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), the lead sponsor of new sanctions legislation, argued in a speech in Chicago that the proposed framework would lead to a "total meltdown" in U.S. relations with Middle Eastern allies.

"It looks like they did a total cave," Kirk told reporters. "A complete lifting of sanctions will return Iran to a position where its economy is actually growing faster than the American economy."

Advisors to the president think Republicans have overplayed their positions in recent months by signing on to a letter from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to Iranian hard-liners and inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress.

In his remarks Thursday, the president singled out Netanyahu, who has emerged as the de facto leader of opposition to the deal, assuring him this course was the "best option" to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. Some Iranian officials have said Israel does not have the right to exist, and Netanyahu has said a deal threatens Israel's security.

Although mostly Republicans have joined Netanyahu in denouncing the talks, leading Democrats, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, have cosponsored both legislative efforts.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who temporarily stepped aside as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee after an indictment Wednesday on bribery charges, had been methodically working this year to build opposition in his party to the deal in progress. At times that has meant working against Republican leaders when they sought to rush legislation to the floor. But it also meant allying with Kirk and Corker to preserve Democratic support on a sanctions bill.

Each time, the White House welcomed those developments as delaying tactics. But had legislation reached Obama's desk sooner, there might not be the support that exists now to override certain vetoes.

"There is a slow, steady, but gaining momentum toward a vote, which might not be what the White House wants," a Democratic congressional aide said.

A senior administration official told reporters Thursday that the White House was "open to discussions" with Congress about how to properly pursue oversight of a deal, but reiterated its desire "to give our negotiators the time and space to get a deal."

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), who supports the president's approach, said the coming weeks would be critical in determining whether Democrats would ultimately heed the White House's call to stand down.

"We'll all have a better sense in a few days about how dangerous it would be for Congress to move forward," he said in an interview. "That means we'll either be pressing to hold a veto-proof minority or we'll be talking about how to make the bill better and support its passage."

Chicago Tribune staff writer Rick Pearson in Chicago contributed to this report.

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