With Iran deal, Washington shows it can work _ sometimes

AP News
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Posted: Apr 15, 2015 4:30 PM
With Iran deal, Washington shows it can work _ sometimes

WASHINGTON (AP) — For at least a few days, Washington may have actually worked.

Republicans and Democrats talked to each other. President Barack Obama and several members of his administration conversed with lawmakers, too. As a result, a Senate committee unanimously backed legislation to give Congress a say in the Iran nuclear talks. In the biggest surprise of all, the White House said Obama would sign the measure if it passed the full Congress.

For a capital city long stalled in gridlock, with the priorities of Republicans and Democrats rarely overlapping, it was a rare burst of bipartisanship — even if neither side wanted to admit it.

It took Obama spokesman Josh Earnest 45 minutes of questions from reporters before he acknowledged on Tuesday that the president would sign the new Iran legislation. Even then he said the White House wasn't "particularly thrilled" with the outcome.

Republicans said the White House got boxed in when administration officials realized they would lose if it came down to a vote on a tougher Iran measure.

"I know there's been some changes in the administration's position," said Republican Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "That change occurred when they saw how many senators were going to vote for this, and only when that occurred."

Whether it was compromise or capitulation, it was the legislative process in action — something that Washington hasn't seen much of in the past few years.

The agreement helps Obama keep alive his hopes for a legacy-building nuclear deal. And it spares him — for now — from the embarrassment of Congress overriding a veto, which is where lawmakers' efforts to weigh in on the Iran negotiations appeared to be heading.

The U.S. and its negotiating partners — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — reached a framework agreement with Iran on April 2 and have until June 30 to finalize an accord that aims to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from U.S. and international sanctions.

Obama argued that Corker's original legislation risked endangering a potential deal and leaving the U.S. to blame.

The president had pledged to veto Corker's proposal that would give Congress 60 days to review any final nuclear accord. That original proposal also would have required the president to certify that Iran was not directly supporting or carrying out terrorism against the U.S. or Americans anywhere in the world, a tall order that the administration staunchly opposed.

As Congress prepared to return to Washington this week after a spring break, administration officials held numerous briefings and one-on-one discussions with lawmakers. Obama called Corker, as well as Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Despite all that, Corker and Cardin were still trying to stitch together a compromise Tuesday morning. Shortly before noon, Secretary of State John Kerry was in a closed-door meeting with lawmakers, still making the administration's case against the bill.

But a compromise was gaining support. The committee voted 19-0 to approve it and Corker and Cardin, both smiling, exited a hearing room and stepped before TV cameras.

The new congressional agreement doesn't look too different from Corker's initial proposal, though the White House and some Democrats touted what they called important changes. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the changes made the legislation "benign."

"I talked to the White House over the weekend, and I thought that if these changes ended up being made then there wasn't a credible threat that the negotiations were going to be undermined any longer," Murphy said.

The revised bill shortens from 60 to 30 days the time that Congress will have to review any final nuclear deal. During the review period, Obama would be able to lift sanctions imposed through presidential action, but would be blocked from easing any imposed by Congress.

The congressional sanctions are among the toughest because they target key Iranian economic sectors and the country's central bank.

The committee also took out language that would have required the president to certify Iran wasn't engaging in terrorist activity. The committee substituted weaker language though it still underscores congressional concern about Iranian support of terrorist activities.

If a final deal is reached, Obama still retains his right to veto any attempt by Congress to disapprove it. To override a veto, opponents would have to muster a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, meaning some Democrats would have to oppose their president to undermine a deal.

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Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.

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