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Obama within grasp of Iran nuclear deal

President Barack Obama's controversial nuclear deal with Iran moved closer to becoming reality Tuesday after two Democratic senators added their support and a key Maryland lawmaker predicted there would be enough votes to overcome GOP opposition.

Supporters of the agreement were one vote shy of the number needed to uphold a presidential veto in the Senate, and Sen. Ben Cardin — the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — told students at the Johns Hopkins University that it was "pretty clear" the White House would get the last vote soon.

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Cardin himself has yet to announce how he plans to vote on the deal negotiated with Iran by the United States and other world powers. He said he expects to decide shortly.

"Good people are coming to different views," he said. "It's going to be a tough decision."

Soon after Cardin spoke in Baltimore, Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Chris Coons of Delaware endorsed the deal, putting supporters within reach of blocking a Republican effort to stop it.

The two were among the latest in a series of Democratic lawmakers — including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore — to announce their support, and the momentum for the deal appeared almost certain to hand Obama a victory on a defining foreign policy goal of his administration.

Republicans in Congress have until Sept. 17 to pass a resolution to reject the deal, which would lift crippling economic sanctions on Tehran in exchange for more robust international inspections of its facilities and a promise by its leaders to refrain from producing weapons-grade nuclear material.

Obama has vowed to veto that resolution, and needs Democratic support to sustain the veto.

Cardin, who took over as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April, has emerged as a central player in the debate, and helped to craft the measure that allowed Congress to review the deal.

A longtime supporter of Israel but also close to Obama, Cardin has been under intense pressure from lobby groups on both sides — including some that are running television advertisements in the state.

Hundreds packed the Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville on Tuesday for a meeting organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the pro-Israeli group that has lobbied heavily against the deal. Many held signs reading "we need a better deal" and "no nukes for Iran."

Based on applause, the sizable crowd, which had been organized in a matter of days, was solidly opposed to the agreement.

"Yes, it's possible the president will have enough votes to sustain his veto," said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg with Beth Tfiloh. "But what a powerful message can be sent to the entire world if the majority of both houses of Congress, joined by the American people, vote down the deal."

Howard Kohr, AIPAC's executive director, said the decision on Iran "will be felt for a generation."

Though Cardin has remained relatively quiet during the August recess, he scheduled two events on Iran this week, including the discussion at Johns Hopkins on Tuesday. Several dozen students peppered Cardin for an hour with intricate questions about the deal and its implications for foreign policy in the Middle East.

"I sort of bristle when people say, 'This is such an easy decision, why haven't you made it?'" Cardin told the students. "I don't think it is an easy judgment call. I think there are high risks either way, going forward or not going forward."

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Cardin, who is Jewish, said he had spoken with Obama during the congressional recess but not Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vigorously opposed the deal.

Liam Haviv, a 20-year-old junior from Arizona, asked what confidence people should have in Obama's commitment to punish Iran if it cheats on its commitments under the deal. He also questioned the congressional approval process, which will likely allow the deal to advance even if a majority of lawmakers oppose it.

"I personally have no more confidence," Haviv, who was born in Israel, said after the event. "This is our system, and I'm very proud of our system. But I don't know that one-third of congressional 'non-disapproval' should be enough confidence to move forward."

Six of Maryland's 10 lawmakers in Washington — Cardin, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer, John Sarbanes, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Delaney — have yet to announce a position on the agreement. Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats who are seeking the Senate seat that will be left open by Mikulski's retirement in 2017, have announced their support.

Cummings, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has long enjoyed support from the state's Jewish community, but is also a close ally of the Obama administration.

Cummings, who is also considering a run for Senate, said he is not convinced that rejecting the deal will push the parties to negotiate better terms.

In addition to the United States and Iran, the agreement was negotiated by Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

"The fundamental issue for both the Congress and the American people to evaluate is clear: What is the alternative to moving forward with the very real restrictions placed by the [agreement] on the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon?" Cummings asked in a statement.

"Time is of the essence in answering this question. Some of our best nuclear scientists have concluded that without the approval and implementation of the [deal], Iran may be able to produce an operational nuclear weapon within months," he said.

Rep. Andy Harris, the state's only Republican in Congress, is the only member of Maryland's delegation openly opposing the deal. In July, Harris said that the pact "will immediately harm the national security of our allies in the Middle East and eventually threaten the United States at home."

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