Senate passes bill giving Congress review of Iran deal
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Senate passes bill giving Congress review of Iran deal

Bipartisan legislation, approved 98-1, requires regular reports from Obama on Iranian steps to scale down its nuclear program

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

The Senate side of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC (Wikimedia Commons/File)
The Senate side of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC (Wikimedia Commons/File)

WASHINGTON — A key bill to increase congressional oversight of a future nuclear agreement with Iran passed the Senate by an overwhelming majority of 98-1 Thursday, in a move that could limit President Barack Obama’s room for maneuver in negotiations with Tehran.

The bill 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 six world powers. It will also require regular reports from the president on the progress of Iranian steps to scale down the nuclear program, and will curb the president’s ability to negate Congress-imposed sanctions by signing repeated waivers.

The Senate’s Republican leadership put the bill to its final vote Thursday afternoon after mounting a concerted effort to prevent the legislation from getting bogged down in floor debate. Although the bill passed its initial committee vote easily last month, it ran into stormy seas last week, when a number of Republican senators attempted to tack on several additional amendments.

Some of the amendments, such as Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) demand that Iran recognize Israel as a precondition for sanctions relief, were condemned by the bill’s Democratic and Republican sponsors alike as poison pills that would ensure the bill’s defeat in a floor vote.

The vote to advance the legislation was the second vote on the bill during the session. The first, taken moments earlier, did not signify approval or disapproval of the bipartisan measure, but was instead to call cloture – to end debate and rule out the approval of additional amendments to the bill. The cloture vote easily secured the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation toward a final vote.

Cotton was the only senator to vote against the bill itself. Other senators, including Charles Grassley (R-IA) and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz (R-TX), voted against the cloture earlier Thursday but in favor of the legislation itself.

The legislation, which is sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), overcame an initially rocky start en route to its committee approval. Threatened with a presidential veto, the bill’s Democratic sponsor worked closely with the White House to hammer out a version palatable to the administration. The compromise brought a number of Senate Democrats on board in support of the bill, enabling it to garner the overwhelming majority in its final floor vote.

The attempt at reconciling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue only came after the Senate came dangerously close to reaching a veto-defeating supermajority in support of the legislation.

Senator Bob Corker (left), speaks while flanked by ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, March 11, 2015 (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
Senator Bob Corker (left), speaks while flanked by ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, March 11, 2015 (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

Speaking on the floor before Thursday’s vote, Corker insisted that “at the end of this day, without this bill there is no review of what happens with Iran.” Describing the bill as a “landmark piece of legislation,” Corker asserted that through its passage, “the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has taken back the power that the president now has,” including insisting that Congress review all of the details of any comprehensive deal with Iran and that Congress has the option of passing a resolution of approval or disapproval.

It also compels the president to report to Congress every 90 days on Iran’s compliance.

“Without this bill there is no limitation of the president’s use of waivers to suspend the sanctions that Congress put in place,” Corker added. “In summary: no bill, no review; no bill, no oversight.”

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement moments after the vote that the “goal is to stop a bad agreement that could pave the way to a nuclear-armed Iran, set off a regional nuclear arms race, and strengthen and legitimize the government of Iran.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the bill “offers the best chance for our constituents through the Congress they elect to weigh in on the White House negotiations with Iran.”

US negotiators are expected to renew talks with Iran next week as part of the P5+1 — the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — negotiating framework. Negotiators are working toward a June 30 deadline to reach a comprehensive agreement with Iran over the future of its nuclear program, based on a framework deal arrived at in April. Since talks with Iran were renewed in late 2013, Congress has asserted that it wants a more dominant role in the negotiations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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