By Paul Richter and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — In a rare bipartisan accord, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday that would give Congress power to review any nuclear deal with Iran, ending months of tense negotiations with the White House.
The measure, which passed 98-1, is likely to pass the House as early as next week and thus provide an outlet for lawmakers determined to have a say in an emerging deal between six international powers and Tehran.
The nearly unanimous Senate vote came after the White House had threatened to veto proposals that would give Congress a more assertive role or that would add fresh demands to the nuclear negotiations.
Despite fierce criticism from Republican lawmakers in recent days, only Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK), cast a negative vote. Cotton, a freshman senator, had challenged party leaders by introducing amendments that he said would toughen the bill, but that critics said would doom its chances of approval.
Passage came minutes after the Senate had voted 96-3 to cut off further debate on dozens of amendments that Republicans had offered.
The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), would give Congress “the right to vote for or against any change in the status quo, when it comes to Iran,” said Senator John Cornyn (R-TeX), moments after the vote.
The White House also portrayed the bill as a victory.
Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, called it “the kind of reasonable and acceptable compromise that the president would be willing to sign.”
She urged the House to “similarly protect this compromise bill, which constitutes a straightforward, fair process for Congress to be able to evaluate a final comprehensive deal.”
Iran is negotiating with the United States and five other world powers in an effort to meet a June 30 deadline to produce a comprehensive agreement that would ease economic sanctions on Tehran if it accepts restrictions aimed at preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The bill that passed the Senate would give Congress at least 30 days to deliberate over any deal, and sets up a procedure for lawmakers to vote to register their support or disapproval of the agreement.
During that period, the Obama administration will be barred from suspending any congressionally imposed sanctions on Iran.
It is unclear whether critics of a deal with Iran could rally enough congressional support to block an agreement that the White House has negotiated. Opponents would need 67 senators to override an expected presidential veto.
Some senior Republican lawmakers and U.S. allies say congressional critics are unlikely to be able to stop a deal.
The measure won backing from many Democratic lawmakers who wanted Congress to have a say on the issue, and decided the measure didn’t represent a serious threat to the diplomacy as it moves into the end game.
Some Democrats said the measure doesn’t give members of Congress any leverage over the Iran deal that they didn’t already have.
President Barack Obama, who initially opposed the bill as an infringement of his authority to conduct foreign affairs, shifted ground last month and said he could accept a modified version that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a 19-0 margin.
Conservative critics sought last week to add amendments that threatened to derail that bill.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), a presidential candidate, sought to require Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist, for example, an issue that was never part of the negotiations.
Conservative support for the bill, which was strong when the bill passed in committee, faded when critics began to fear it would not allow Congress to derail any agreement with Iran.
Yet almost all senators ultimately voted for the measure because of their desire to give Congress a say.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH), said after the Senate vote that he looked forward to the bill’s passage in the House “to hold President Obama’s administration accountable.”
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr