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Cardin lands complicated deal with GOP, Obama on Iran

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., left, and Ranking Member Ben Cardin, D-Md., speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington April 14, 2015, following a 19-0 committee vote unanimously approving a bill that would give Congress a say about the emerging deal aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., left, and Ranking Member Ben Cardin, D-Md., speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington April 14, 2015, following a 19-0 committee vote unanimously approving a bill that would give Congress a say about the emerging deal aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. (Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Less than two weeks after becoming the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin scored a major legislative victory Tuesday by negotiating an agreement to give Congress oversight of an emerging deal to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the committee voted unanimously to back a revised version of the legislation crafted by Cardin and the panel's Republican chairman, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. An earlier draft of the measure faced opposition from lawmakers of both parties as well as the White House.

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If approved, the Corker-Menendez bill would give Congress 30 days to approve or disapprove of any agreement the Obama administration reaches to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for that country's curbing its nuclear program. Negotiators are working to finalize an agreement by the end of June.

"Bottom line, there is no disagreement on this committee or in the Congress that we cannot trust Iran," Cardin said. "We have to be involved here. ... It's the right thing not only for Congress but for the American people."

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The Maryland Democrat was thrust into the role of chief negotiator for his party this month after his predecessor, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, was indicted on corruption charges.

Menendez, a former chairman of the committee, stepped down as the top Democrat a day before the White House announced a framework agreement with Tehran.

Since then, Cardin has walked a delicate balance on the legislation. The Obama administration initially threatened to veto the bill, citing concerns that it could influence the negotiations. Several Democrats supported it, but it was not clear whether Corker had enough votes in the Senate to override a veto.

Cardin and Corker agreed to reduce the initial review period from 60 to 30 days. During that time, President Barack Obama would be able to lift only those sanctions imposed through presidential action, not those levied by Congress.

Congress would have additional time to review a deal under certain conditions, such as if the president vetoed a resolution disapproving an agreement.

The negotiators also removed a provision that would have required the president to certify that Iran is not supporting terrorism.

Shortly before the committee's vote Tuesday — and after weeks of lobbying against the initial version — the White House indicated that it would support the compromise.

Republicans, including Corker, said the reversal came only after the White House realized that the bill was going to pass in some form.

"We believe it is our role to ensure that any deal with Iran makes them accountable, is transparent and is enforceable," Corker said.

Both houses of Congress are now likely to pass the bill. It is expected to come before the full Senate as soon as next week.

A vote to lift economic sanctions in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions would come later, if the Obama administration, Iran and five other nations are able to reach an agreement.

Obama retains the right to veto any attempt by Congress to scuttle such a pact. To override a veto would require a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate, meaning that some Democrats would have to oppose their president to sink a deal.

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Obama, whose foreign policy legacy would be burnished by a deal with Iran, has been in a standoff for months with lawmakers who say Congress should have a chance to weigh in and remain skeptical that Iran would honor an agreement.

The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China reached a preliminary agreement with Iran on April 2 to curb its nuclear program.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration would withhold final judgment on the compromise negotiated by Corker and Cardin while the measure works its way through Congress. The White House is wary of potential changes that would render it unpalatable.

Sen. Marco Rubio had proposed an amendment that would require Iran's leaders to accept Israel's right to exist.

The Florida Republican, who announced his candidacy for president Monday, said his amendment probably could have passed in the committee, but ultimately "could imperil the entire arrangement."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said she opposed the bill in its original form, but now supports it.

"There's no such thing as perfection," Boxer said, nodding to Corker and Cardin, "but I think the two of you have struck just the right balance."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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