HERSHEY, Pa. (AP) — In the Republicans' first foreign policy challenge to President Barack Obama, the Senate is likely to vote within a few weeks on legislation restricting the administration's ability to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, officials attending a retreat of GOP lawmakers said Thursday.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he and other lawmakers are drafting a measure to give Congress a right to "vote up or down" on any agreement, a prerogative it currently does not have.
Other lawmakers in both parties are drafting a measure relating to tougher penalties against Iran if it does not give up uranium enrichment as part of any accord. Separately, the Senate Banking Committee has announced a hearing for next week on the "strategic necessity" of sanctions.
Corker made his comments as Republicans, in charge of both houses, held their first joint winter retreat in a decade. They chose as the setting a place where politics runs a distant second to chocolate, in precincts where cocoa-infused soaps, body washes and shampoos vie with the more familiar chocolate kisses and bars (light or dark) for tourist dollars.
However sweet the backdrop, officials said one of the principal objectives for the sessions was to make sure impatient House conservatives understand a bitter truth — that while they can pass legislation with a simple majority, 60 votes are often required in the Senate. Republicans hold only 54 seats, meaning they will need Democratic help on contentious measures.
As an illustration of the general principle, time was set aside to discuss House-passed legislation that would roll back Obama's recent immigration policies and expose hundreds of thousands of younger immigrants to deportation.
Those provisions are widely viewed as unpassable in the Senate. Yet they are attached to a measure that provides $39.7 billion for the Homeland Security Department in the current fiscal year — must-pass legislation, given that the department's money runs out Feb. 27.
"Under no circumstances will be see any shutdown," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, second-ranking member of the GOP leadership.
In the first two weeks of the new Congress, Republicans have pushed other bills designed to challenge Obama on domestic issues, including one to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and others to roll back portions of the health care law and restrictions imposed on the financial industry in the wake of the economic crash of 2008.
On the House's agenda for next week is a bill to prohibit abortions beginning 20 weeks after conception, and titled the "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act."
By contrast, the measure relating to negotiations with Iran is in line to become the first challenge to Obama's foreign policy-making authority.
Corker said McConnell wants to pass legislation relatively quickly and said the Senate may debate the issue as soon as late January or early February. Other officials said McConnell wants to hold an early debate on the issue.
Corker told reporters that current law gives Congress a say in any proposed international sale of nuclear equipment, and said some lawmakers in both parties believe that should be extended to any deal with Iran. He said senators will soon be introducing legislation to that effect.
"We want Congress to be able to vote up or down," he said.
There has been widespread support in both parties for an effort to toughening existing economic pressure on Iran in hopes its negotiators will make more concessions in talks aimed at assuring the country does not obtain nuclear weapons.
The United States and its allies hope for an agreement by summer that would ease current international sanctions currently in place in exchange for stricter limits on Iran's nuclear activity.
The administration takes a dim view of additional sanctions.
U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power said earlier this week that imposing new sanctions now "will almost certainly end a negotiations process that has not only frozen the advance of Iran's nuclear program, but that could lead us to an understanding that would give us confidence in its exclusively peaceful nature."
But Cornyn said the sanctions legislation was one area where Republicans have "large bipartisan majorities approaching veto override."
A two-thirds majority of both houses is required to override a veto.