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Bill giving Congress say on Iran deal passes key Senate hurdle

After compromise, Obama administration suggests it will not veto bill to give Congress say on final agreement

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (left) confers with ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (right) during a committee markup meeting on the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran,  in Washington, DC, April 14, 2015. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (left) confers with ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (right) during a committee markup meeting on the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran, in Washington, DC, April 14, 2015. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — After a last-minute compromise earned the Obama administration’s support, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed a bill that would increase Congressional oversight of any comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran Tuesday.

The bill, authored by Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) will now head to the Senate floor, where it is likely to pass the final hurdle and be signed into law.

The move earned quick praise from the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, which  urged quick action by the full Senate to adopt the legislation and called on the House to take action on similar congressional review legislation.

Corker and Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) worked over the past 24 hours to come up with a version of the bill that would make the legislation more palatable to Democrats.

In recent weeks, the White House campaigned hard against the original text of the legislation, which it said undermined the possibility of reaching any negotiated agreement with Iran.

At the bill’s heart is text that will allow Congress a 52 day review period of any agreement that the US reaches with Iran over its nuclear program in the framework of ongoing talks between Tehran and the P5+1 member states. An earlier version of the bill sought to put any plan by Obama to lift sanctions on Iran on hold for up to 60 days while Congress reviewed the deal.

In advocating for his legislation, Corker repeatedly criticized the current situation, in which both the United Nations Security Council and the Iranian Majlis parliament would be able to vote on any agreement, but the United States Congress would not.

“The administration … has been fighting strongly against this,” said Corker, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“I know they’ve relented because of what they believe will be the outcome here,” he said. “I believe this is going to be an important role, especially the compliance pieces that come afterward.”

The White House initially promised to veto the legislation, but it reversed course shortly before the committee vote, indicating that it would not put the kibosh on the bill.

It’s not clear Obama would have been able to wield his veto pen in any case. Even before the White House’s reversal, Corker claimed that he already had garnered enough support to override any potential presidential veto.

Obama, whose foreign policy legacy would be burnished by a deal with Iran, has been in a standoff for months with lawmakers who say Congress should have a chance to weigh in and remain skeptical that Iran will honor any agreement.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House would withhold final judgment on the bill while it works its way through Congress, wary that potential changes could be made in committee that would render it unpalatable. But he said the White House could support the compromise in its current form.

“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.

One provision of the bill which was described by its opponents as a poison pill was a clause stipulating that Iran cease state sponsorship of terror.

That clause was removed from the final text of the bill as a provision for gaining the administration’s approval for the legislation.

At the same time, Cardin stressed during the powerful Senate committee’s Tuesday meeting that language still remained in the legislation that required the president to make regular reports to Congress regarding both Iran’s state sponsorship of terror as well as its extensive record of domestic human rights abuses.

An attempt to restore the anti-terror language through a last-minute amendment to the bill was rejected by both Cardin and Corker in an effort to pass a bill that would not be vetoed.

Speaking during the Tuesday session, Menendez described the bill as “the way to send a message to Tehran about our expectations.”

“The fact is – if the P5+1 and Iran ultimately achieve a comprehensive agreement by the June deadline – at the end of the day, Congress must have oversight responsibility, and this legislation provides it. This bill establishes a managed process for Congressional review and a framework for Congressional oversight,” Menendez said.

The former ranking member, who stepped down from committee leadership earlier this month after being indicted on corruption-related charges, argued that the case of the Iranian negotiations differed from other non-treaty agreements which did not require Congressional approval.

Menendez grounded his argument in the claim that Congress had been central in approving nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, and thus must also have a role in lifting them. “As the author of those sanctions, working with others, I can tell you that we never envisioned a wholesale waiver of those sanctions without congressional input and action,” he noted.

The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee quickly issued a statement applauding the unanimous vote for the bill, which was one of the cornerstones of its lobbying agenda this year.

“AIPAC believes that it is imperative for Congress to assert its historic foreign policy role,” the organization wrote. “Congress should review any agreement to ensure it meets US objectives and object if it fails to do so. Serious concerns have been raised over the framework understanding. A final deal, with its immense national security implications, must be subjected to the constitutional system of checks and balances that is the bedrock of our democracy.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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