Senate prepares to advance bill on Iran nuclear deal

Republican Senate leaders, worried that proposals from conservatives in their caucus could upend the fragile bipartisan agreement on legislation targeting the Iranian nuclear deal, are poised to cut off debate on the bill, Politico reports.

The U.S., Iran, and five other nations reached an interim agreement at the end of March to limit and monitor Iran's nuclear energy program in exchange for a rollback of the sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy. Negotiators are working toward an end-of-June deadline for a final deal.

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The Senate is debating a bill that would allow Congress to review any final agreement that emerges. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee managed to hammer out a proposal in March that passed the panel unanimously and drew the reluctant backing of the White House. That bill would have allowed Congress 30 days to pass a resolution disapproving of a deal with Iran before any U.S. sanctions are lifted.

But now that the bill has hit the Senate floor, several conservative Republicans are pushing amendments to demand more of Iran, and the White House is threatening to veto any bill that could jeopardize the international agreement.

Most controversial is an amendment from Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton that would require the Iranian government to disclose the history of its nuclear program and close all of its nuclear facilities. Another amendment, from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, would require Iran to affirm Israel's right to exist. A third amendment, from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, would have allowed Congress to block the implementation of any deal. (While the current proposal allows Congress to pass a resolution of disapproval, the president could veto it and Republicans opposed to the deal would be hard pressed to secure the votes to override that veto.)

According to Politico, GOP leaders were beginning to persuade Democrats to allow votes on the Cruz and Rubio amendments, but Democrats were so opposed to Cotton's proposal that they refused to negotiate on any amendments the White House opposed.

"I would like to have seen more amendments. But in light of the circumstances, that route is now unfortunately over," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, told Politico. "My sense is we're going to move toward successful passage."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said he'd decide Monday whether to close debate on the measure and move toward a final floor vote.

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New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat who's been fairly critical of the administration's approach to negotiations with Iran, told Politico it's "pretty ironic" that hardball tactics from some Republicans are preventing many of their colleagues from putting their mark on the bill.

And Corker suggested Cotton may be feeling chagrined by his role in short-circuiting the debate on the issue. "I think that he understands now the full impact of what has occurred," the Tennessee senator said.

But Cotton and other conservatives have remained defiant, arguing that the current bill is relatively toothless and it's incumbent upon Congress to strengthen it.

"We need to vote. If you do not want to vote, you should not have come to the Senate. If you are in the Senate and you do not want to vote, you should leave," Cotton said in a floor speech on Thursday. "We are talking about a nuclear-armed Iran, the most dangerous threat to our national security."

Of course, the president has also stressed the need to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. He argues that the best way to do that is to secure a deal that limits and monitors Iran's nuclear activity. If Congress passes a bill that interferes only minimally with the president' ability to implement that deal, it would constitute a major strategic victory for the White House.