McConnell backs off clash with Democrats on Iran

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, the Republican Policy Committee chairman, as the Senate GOP leadership meets with reporters following their weekly policy luncheon, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. Congress had just heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak about his worry over Iran's nuclear program and treaty negotiation during a controversial address. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, the Republican Policy Committee chairman, as the Senate GOP leadership meets with reporters following their weekly policy luncheon, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. Congress had just heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak about his worry over Iran's nuclear program and treaty negotiation during a controversial address. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday backed off plans to fast-track a vote on legislation, opposed by the White House, that calls for lawmakers to be able to reject or approve a future nuclear deal with Iran.

The decision came in the face of stiff opposition from Senate Democrats who signed on to the bill but said they would oppose it if it came up before a late-March deadline for the United States and five world powers to reach an agreement with Tehran. Their stance ensured that the legislation would fail to advance in a test vote that had been expected on Tuesday.

“The Senate will turn next to the anti-human-trafficking legislation while Democrats decide whether or not they believe they and Congress as a whole should be able to review and vote on any deal the president cuts with the leaders of Iran,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said by email.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the measure’s principal author, welcomed McConnell’s decision as a stepping stone to building a veto-proof majority in support of the proposal.

“I greatly appreciate the majority leader’s commitment to getting the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act across the finish line by allowing the vote to occur at a time when we will more likely generate a veto-proof majority,” Corker said in a statement.

The Tennessee senator noted that four Democratic Senate holdouts — Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Charles Schumer of New York, Chris Coons of Delaware and Ben Cardin of Maryland — signed on to the proposal as long as a vote occurs after the late-March deadline for a framework agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, second from left, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, second from right, for a new round of nuclear negotiations on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in Montreux, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, second from left, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, second from right, for a new round of nuclear negotiations on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in Montreux, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

The White House has fiercely opposed any legislative action — whether Corker’s bill or other legislation that proposes to tighten economic sanctions on Iran — while the negotiations are still alive. Obama and other top officials have argued that any such steps risk collapsing the negotiations, which aim to trade economic sanctions relief for Iran in return for steps to ensure Tehran cannot develop nuclear weapons undetected by the international community. The delay in the vote almost certainly will push a vote on the Iran Review Act until after the end-of-March deadline.

Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, McConnell moved to fast-track a vote on the legislation, skipping the usual process of having Corker’s committee vote before the legislation goes to the full Senate. Democrats — including Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a fierce and frequent critic of President Obama’s Iran policy — rebelled.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., outlines his bipartisan bill requiring congressional review of any comprehensive nuclear agreement that President Barack Obama reaches with Iran, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. He is joined at rear, from left, by, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The senators had just heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's concerns about Iran's nuclear program during a controversial address to Congress that was criticized by President Obama. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., outlines his bipartisan bill requiring congressional review of any comprehensive nuclear agreement that President Barack Obama reaches with Iran, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. He is joined at rear, from left, by, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The senators had just heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's concerns about Iran's nuclear program during a controversial address to Congress that was criticized by President Obama. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“We are disappointed that you have proceeded outside of regular order, which suggests that the goal of this maneuver is to score partisan political points, rather than pursue a substantive strategy to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” they wrote McConnell on Wednesday.

Iran insists it wants nuclear power for civilian purposes, such as generating electricity. But the United States and its partners view the Islamic Republic’s program, parts of which Tehran tried to keep secret, as an attempt to develop the ability to build nuclear weapons.

The result of Thursday’s maneuver was to raise the stakes for a vote on the measure by swelling the ranks of Democratic supporters while putting off the potential legislative confrontation for as little as two weeks.

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