Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon said he will vote to support the Iran nuclear deal, a pledge that puts President Barack Obama only three votes short of protecting the pact in Congress.
Merkley issued a statement Sunday calling the accord “the best available strategy to block Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
Merkley’s support brings to 31 the number of senators publicly favoring the deal, which would ease economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on the country’s nuclear program.
Barring defections, Obama needs three more votes from 13 Senate Democrats who have yet to declare their position, to sustain a likely veto of legislation aimed at killing the pact.
If Obama can assemble 41 Senate votes by getting most of the remaining Democrats on board, the Senate may not vote on the agreement at all.
The Republican-controlled Congress has until Sept. 17 to pass a resolution disapproving the deal reached in July between six world powers and Iran. Obama has pledged to veto that resolution if it gets to his desk.
While Republicans have been united in opposing the deal, only two Democratic senators -- Charles Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the chamber, and Robert Menendez of New Jersey -- have joined them so far.
Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, plans to announce his decision on Tuesday. Among other Democrats yet to disclose a position are Maryland’s Ben Cardin and New Jersey’s Cory Booker.
The only uncertain Senate Republican vote is that of Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who remains undecided and is expected to make her decision after Sept. 7.
Merkley, in a statement on his website, pledged to vote for the deal even while pointing to “significant shortcomings” that he said the U.S. must address with “a massive intelligence program” and monitoring.
Merkley said he was troubled that the deal allows Iran to import conventional arms after five years and ballistic missile technology after eight years, and sets no restrictions on how Iran can use money it reclaims when sanctions are lifted.
But he rejected a proposal from deal opponents to try to renegotiate the accord for better terms.
If the U.S. rejects the deal and Iran resumes its nuclear program, “the United States would be viewed by the international community as undermining a strong framework for peacefully blocking a potential Iranian bomb,” Merkley said.
While the Republican-controlled House has enough votes to pass a resolution rejecting the deal, it’s unclear whether the Senate does. Assuming all 54 Senate Republicans oppose the accord, they would need support from six Democrats to get the 60 votes necessary to advance a resolution.