WASHINGTON -- Appearing in the Rose Garden on Thursday to announce the framework of a historic deal on Iran's nuclear program, President Barack Obama practically begged lawmakers not to mess with the still delicate arrangement.
"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. "International unity will collapse, and the path to conflict will widen."
Congress, at least initially, didn't appear ready to heed that warning.
Within minutes of the president's address, Senate Republicans said they would continue to push a bill that prevents any final deal from taking effect for 60 days, giving Congress time to vote for or against it -- or do nothing.
“There is growing bipartisan support for congressional review of the nuclear deal, and I am confident of a strong vote on the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes it up on April 14,” committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in a statement, referencing the legislation that he has shepherded to near veto-proof support.
The third-ranking Republican in the Senate, John Thune (R-S.D.), also suggested that a collision course has been set, saying he expects Corker’s bill to come to the floor in the near future.
“A good amount of that depends on the framework [agreement]. My guess is [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] will want to put it on the floor fairly quickly,” Thune said. “I think there’s a good amount of interest in getting the Senate on the record that any deal will have to go through Congress.”
To inch closer to the 67-vote veto-proof majority, proponents of the bill will likely target Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin (Md.) and Chris Coons (Del.), which would leave them only one supporter short.
Coons let his skepticism be known Thursday, saying that he has told the administration that "no deal is better than a bad deal" and that he will work with his colleagues to "ensure that Congress' voice is heard in this process."
Lawmakers' initial coolness over the framework agreement creates complications for the White House as it tries to hammer out the final details of a nuclear deal by the end of June. After negotiating with world powers under a bright international spotlight, the Obama administration faces similarly high-stakes talks on Capitol Hill. Congressional outreach has not been this president's forte, but his biggest foreign policy achievement may now depend on it.
A senior administration official told reporters on Thursday that the White House would be "briefing very extensively" members of Congress over the next couple of days, including placing calls to party leaders and reaching out to Corker.
"We have a great deal of respect for the role Congress has played over the years on Iran," said another official. "We do believe it is important for Congress to play an oversight role."
But that same official cautioned that the president would oppose any measure that he felt "essentially undermines our ability to get a deal done."
The administration's success in striking this balance will likely come down to its ability to keep a handful of critical Senate Democrats in the fold. With Corker's bill at most three votes shy of a veto-proof majority, the president has a small but important margin for error.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a co-sponsor of Corker’s bill and a strong critic of the Iran talks, said the framework agreement would receive “close scrutiny” in the coming days from Congress. “If diplomats can negotiate for two years on this issue, then certainly Congress is entitled to a review period of an agreement that will fundamentally alter our relationship with Iran and the sanctions imposed by Congress,” he said.
While Menendez vowed continued oversight, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he remained “cautiously optimistic” after speaking with Obama about the details of the deal.
“Now is the time for thoughtful consideration, not rash action that could undermine the prospects for success,” Reid said. “We have much to learn about what was negotiated and what will take place between now and the end of June.”
Part of the reason the White House seems poised to focus on Democratic senators is that there is little to no evidence that Republicans will budge. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), perhaps the most likely GOP figure to speak out in favor of a diplomatic resolution, would not comment on Thursday's news. On the other side of the spectrum is Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who called the framework agreement worse than the lead-up to World War II.
"Neville Chamberlain got a better deal in 1938," Kirk said. "Under today’s deal, the United States and its international partners will dismantle the sanctions regime against Iran, while Iran, the world’s biggest exporter of terrorism, will be allowed to keep vast capabilities to make nuclear weapons."
At this juncture, a Senate Democratic aide said, it was close to impossible to confidently predict how the Iran debate will play out. The White House, the aide said, would have to convince skeptical Democrats that the deal was "rock solid and verifiable," ramp up the amount of briefing, and allow them to "have a say without being too intrusive." Even then, it's unclear if Obama can stop the legislative intrusion he warned against.
"I would not put a single cent on any bet at the moment," said the aide. "So much of this is going to depend on the individual outreach and briefing over the next couple weeks, and historically they have not done a very good job on that front."
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