A Senate committee voted unanimously Tuesday to give Congress the power to review a potential Iran nuclear deal after a June 30 negotiating deadline, in a compromise with the White House that allows President Obama to avoid possible legislative disapproval of the pact before it can be completed.
The bipartisan bill is likely to move quickly to the full Senate after the Foreign Relations Committee voted 19 to 0 to approve the measure. It would give Congress at least 30 days to consider an agreement after it was signed, before Obama could waive or suspend any congressionally mandated sanctions against Iran.
During that period, lawmakers could vote their disapproval of the agreement. Any such resolution would have to clear a relatively high bar to become law, requiring 60 votes to pass and 67, or two-thirds of the Senate, to override a presidential veto.
The compromise avoided a potentially destructive showdown between the White House and Congress, as well as a possible free-for-all of congressional action that Obama has said could derail the negotiations while they are underway. It followed extensive administration lobbying on Capitol Hill, including phone calls from Obama and a closed-door Senate meeting Tuesday morning with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other senior officials.
While the administration was “not particularly thrilled” by the final result, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said before the vote, it was “the kind of compromise that the president would be willing to sign.”
In passing the legislation, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) hailed the “true emergence” of bipartisanship on a crucial foreign policy issue, and he congratulated Congress for approving sanctions legislation in the first place that “brought Iran to the negotiating table.”
“Despite opposition from the White House all along,” Corker said in a statement released after the vote, he was proud of unanimous committee support for a measure that “will ensure the American people — through their elected representatives — will have a voice on any final deal with Iran, if one is reached.”
He said he was “confident” of even more bipartisan support in the full Senate and in the House, where Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he expects to move quickly on the issue.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told colleagues late Tuesday that the compromise bill “can be supported.”
Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the committee, defined the compromise as a slight conditioning “of the president’s statutory power to waive or suspend congressional sanctions” in exchange for congressional agreement not to “weigh in until there’s a deal.”
“Why would Iran even make concessions to us if they had no idea when or if Congress would weigh in?” Kaine said in an interview.
Throughout the debate over the legislation, the administration insisted that Congress had no power to approve or disapprove any deal Obama made with Iran and could vote only on lifting the sanctions it had passed. Those sanctions, which include waiver provisions that Obama has now given up for at least 30 days, are just part of the long-standing restrictions against Iran, which include other sanctions imposed over the years by executive order that the president retains the right to waive. Still more sanctions have been imposed by the United Nations and the European Union.
The question of when sanctions would be waived or lifted under an agreement is still to be negotiated, and has been a subject of extensive political jousting between the United States and its five partners at the table — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — and Iran.
A framework agreement between the two sides, signed April 2, indicated that no sanctions would be removed until Iran completed all the requirements of a deal — including intrusive inspections, along with sharp reductions in its ability to enrich uranium and other measures that the administration has said would block all its pathways to development of a nuclear weapon. The administration has estimated that it would take Iran at least six months to a year to complete those steps after a deal was signed.
Last week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said his interpretation of the framework was that sanctions relief would come immediately after a final deal was signed.
An earlier bill proposed by Corker would have given Congress power over all sanctions, not just those imposed through legislation, and said no deal could go into effect without an affirmative vote by Congress.
The bill approved Tuesday is limited to congressional sanctions, and it gives lawmakers the option to approve or disapprove an agreement, or to do nothing.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, Corker and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, agreed on a package of changes.
Cardin said those changes — which reduced the review period from an original 60 days and jettisoned controversial language requiring the president to regularly certify that Iran had not undertaken or supported terrorist acts against Americans — would ensure an “orderly and thoughtful” review of the deal. The final bill requires the president to report to Congress every 90 days on Iran’s terrorist activities and financing and its progress toward developing ballistic missiles.
Earnest said negotiations with senators included assurances that the bill would be “the one and only mechanism for codifying precisely what the Congress’s oversight is into this matter.” He described the legislation as “a vote to vote later” on congressional sanctions, “not a specific vote about the decision to enter into an agreement,” which is constitutionally reserved for the president. “That’s an important clarification,” he said.
One key Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Christopher A. Coons (Del.), said the administration’s effort to keep the negotiations away from Capitol Hill “goes against, in a gut sense, the view that many in Congress have, that our constitutional framework imagines congressional relevance to the conduct of foreign policy.”
“If the administration can’t persuade 34 senators of whatever party that this agreement is worth proceeding with, then it’s really a bad agreement,” he said Tuesday.
While the Corker-Cardin compromise paved the way for the unanimous vote, some Republicans stuck to a harder line and sought to toughen the bill. Among more than 50 proposed committee amendments were changes that could have created new and perhaps unworkable conditions for the deal’s approval.
The Foreign Relations Committee includes two Republican presidential candidates, Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), eager to burnish their national security credentials and establish a sharp contrast with a Democratic nominee’s likely support for the negotiations.
Rubio, for instance, initially proposed an amendment that would require Iran to formally recognize Israel’s right to exist, echoing the position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Rubio did not offer the amendment — although he indicated he may bring it up on the Senate floor — which would have been a poison pill, tanking Democratic support for the final legislation.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said that the bill “creates a role” for Congress, “and right now we have no role.” But while that role “is congressional review,” he said, “it’s a long way from advice and consent” for an agreement that “I think . . . rises to the level of a treaty.”
Colby Itkowitz, Paul Kane, Sean Sullivan and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.