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Why Senate Democrats could be Obama’s biggest problem on Iran

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Senate Democrats are emerging as a potentially major obstacle facing President Obama as he tries to build support on Capitol Hill for a nuclear deal with Iran.

Key Democrats say they are open to a bill that Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is pushing, which the White House says could complicate talks with Iran. And one of the Senate's top-ranking Democrats is reiterating his support for the measure. If it got enough Democratic backing, Obama would not be able to stop the bill with his veto pen.

These developments, which come as Congress is in recess and just days after the United States and five other world powers reached a framework for the nuclear deal with Iran, illustrate the stiff challenges facing Obama and his team when lawmakers return to the Capitol next week.

"I do think they have some work to do to recognize that congressional oversight is appropriate," Sen. Chris Coons (Del.), one of the Democrats weighing support for Corker's bill, told The Washington Post.

[Obama makes his sales pitch for Iran nuclear deal]

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democrat, released a statement Monday reaffirming his support for Corker's measure. Schumer is one of nine Democratic co-sponsors of the measure.

“This is a very serious issue that deserves careful consideration, and I expect to have a classified briefing in the near future. I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement, and I support the Corker bill which would allow that to occur," said Schumer, who has the inside track to becoming the next Senate Democratic leader.

Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), the newly minted ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview with The Post that the framework of Corker's bill "is one that makes sense." Cardin said he is weighing whether to back the measure -- it would give Congress a 60-day period to review the nuclear deal before the Obama administration could suspend or remove sanctions against Iran mandated by the legislative body -- and what changes to it may be needed.

He said he is also withholding final judgment on the nuclear deal until he receives classified briefings from administration officials next week.

"I want to ask questions about the snapback of sanctions," he said.

The Foreign Relations Committee plans to vote on Corker's bill next Tuesday. The key question for the legislation, if it advances from the panel as expected, is whether at least 67 senators would support it on the Senate floor. That would be the minimum number required to override a veto from Obama.

Corker will need Democratic help to get there. For now, it appears that his bill is nearing that mark but just short. In addition to the nine Democratic co-sponsors, several more Democrats may support it, close watchers say. It could also win the support of all 54 Republicans.

But votes are movable, and nothing is set in stone. It's also possible for the White House to win over Democrats on the fence or on Corker's side.

The president has launched an effort to convince Democrats to support the Iranian deal and to urge them not to do anything to upset the delicate negotiations.

To that end, the White House has dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to reach out to Democrats, a person familiar with the efforts said.

The United States and five other world powers reached a framework deal with Iran last Thursday. Under the arrangement, the Iranians would receive relief from stiff economic sanctions in exchange for restrictions on their nuclear program.

But the deal, which Obama has hailed as a vehicle for preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon, is not final. Talks will continue into June. The White House says that is why Corker's bill is dangerous; it could upset sensitive negotiations.

"In this fashion we have a pretty strong disagreement with him -- because in the mind of the president, it could potentially interfere with the ongoing negotiations that are slated to continue through June," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday. "It also could interfere with the ability of the United States to implement the agreement successfully."

Democrats might try to tweak Corker's bill to make it less of a roadblock in the eyes of the White House. Changing the review period, for example, is one change lawmakers could propose.

Or they might try to embrace an alternative way of giving Congress some input in the talks. But it's not clear what that would look like.

Most Republicans have expressed clear concerns with the deal, warning that Iran is not to be trusted and could try to skirt its end of the bargain.

“To the detriment of international security -- specifically regarding the security of the United States, Israel and other allies, as well as preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East -- the Obama administration has always approached the goal of these negotiations as reaching the best deal that is acceptable to Iran, rather than what should be our national goal: ending Iran's nuclear program," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement.

McConnell was one of dozens of Republicans who last month signed an open letter from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to Iranian leaders meant to derail a nuclear deal. Corker did not sign it.

The letter showed how hard-line Republican opposition could endanger Corker's efforts. If their resistance to Obama's plan appears overly partisan, it could make winning over Democrats more difficult.

Coons is one of the Democrats who could be key to deciding whether the Corker bill passing with a veto-proof majority. He said that he was "encouraged by the breadth of the agreement" reached with Iran and that one of his requirements for supporting Corker's bill would be evidence that it is not just a partisan exercise for Republicans trying to derail Obama's agenda.

"I'm concerned by some recent developments that suggest some Republicans are simply determined to kill a deal," he said.