A bipartisan plot?

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Senators Challenge Obama With New Iran Bill

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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A bipartisan group of senators introduced new legislation Friday afternoon to mandate Congressional review of any nuclear deal the Obama administration strikes with Iran. It's the latest effort by Congress to assert some kind of oversight of the administration’s efforts.

According to the text, which I obtained, the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015” would require President Barack Obama to submit any nuclear deal with Iran to Congress for a 60-day review period, during which the administration would have to wait on implementing most parts of the deal. During that time, Congress would have the opportunity to vote on the deal, although there is no explicit requirement that it do so.

The new bill was finalized after three weeks of intense negotiations between Senate Foreign Relations Committee chiefs Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Robert Menendez. Five other senators in each party have signed on, giving the bill’s authors what they feel is a good case for the legislation to move through the committee in March, to be ready to go to the Senate floor after March 24, if and only if Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries reach at least political agreement toward a comprehensive deal.

“Before sanctions begin to be unraveled, this gives us our rightful role to weigh in and keeps us involved as things move along -- if a deal is reached,” Corker told me in an interview Friday. 

Unlike a previous version introduced by Corker and fellow Republican Lindsey Graham, this bill does not actually mandate a vote on any nuclear deal; that decision would be made at the appropriate time by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. This bit of flexibility is designed to attract Senate Democrats, in hopes of building a veto-proof majority.

“If a nuclear deal is reached, Congress will have an opportunity to review the agreement and, more importantly, ensure its compliance after it goes into effect. This legislation establishes that vital review and oversight process," Menendez told me in a statement.

Importantly, the new Corker-Menendez bill would require the administration share with Congress all the details of any nuclear deal with Iran and report on its verification. If Congress does vote to reject the nuclear deal during the 60-day review period, the bill would prevent lawmakers from supporting its implementation, for example by restricting the lifting of any sanctions on Iran that originated from Congressional legislation.

Corker said that if the White House doesn’t reach at least a political agreement before the March 24 deadline, Congress would then probably move forward on alternate legislation, a new Iran sanctions bill written by Republican Mark Kirk and Menendez that would mandate new sanctions if no final pact is reached this summer. But he said that Congress has to be ready to respond in case a deal is actually announced, hence Friday's action.

“If a deal is reached, this is a very important piece of legislation and needs to be passed. If they don’t reach a deal, Kirk-Menendez becomes operable at that time,” he said.

The new bill would also require the administration to notify Congress if Iran is in material breach of any final deal, require the administration to report to Congress twice a year about Iran’s compliance, and give Congress strengthened tools to reinstate sanctions on Iran if it is caught cheating.

Senate aides told me that top members of the Obama White House, including Secretary of State John Kerry, lobbied Democrats to oppose releasing the new Corker-Menendez bill, as part of the administration’s aversion to any legislation that could constrain its ability to make a deal with Iran. Nevertheless, several Democrats have already signed on -- including Heidi Heitkamp, Tim Kaine and Bill Nelson -- a recognition of broad Congressional desire not to be totally shut out of the process.

"I believe Congress should weigh in on the content of the deal given the centrality of the congressional sanctions to the entire negotiation and the significant security interests involved," Kaine told me in a statement. "This legislation sets up a clear and constructive process for Congressional review of statutory sanctions relief under a standard that is appropriately deferential to the executive branch negotiating the deal." 

Even with the new bill introduced, there remains no consensus in the Senate -- or the House, for that matter -- on exactly how to proceed. This latest effort by Corker and Menendez could very well become the center of gravity for legislative action if the administration achieves a bargain with Iran. In that scenario, the administration will have a hard time continuing to argue that Congress should have no oversight role all.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net