The Senate on Thursday easily passed legislation that will give Congress a formal role in reviewing the emerging Iran nuclear agreement, amid complaints from some Republicans that the bill will actually make it relatively easy for the Obama administration to strike a weak deal with Iran.
The Senate passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act in a 98-1 — the lone "no" vote came from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
The final vote followed several weeks of tension between the Senate and the White House, as President Barack Obama made it clear that he didn't want to give Congress any authority to review a deal he hopes is finalized this summer.
However, it was almost immediately clear that members of both parties wanted to have a say over the agreement, since it could at some point require Congress to lift U.S. sanctions against Iran. When Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and the top Democrat on that committee, Ben Cardin (D-Md.), reached a deal on a bill, the White House relented and said it would support the legislation.
But several conservative Republicans said the White House was able to support the bill because while it lets Congress review the deal, it still makes it very hard for Congress to reject it.
Under the bill, Congress will be able to pass a resolution of disapproval if it decides the final Iran deal is no good. That resolution might well be able to pass both the House and the Senate, but even if it does, it can still be vetoed by Obama.
If it's vetoed, a two-thirds majority would be needed in each chamber to override that veto. That seems doubtful, and that has led members like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to say the deal should only be approved if Congress affirmatively approves it.
Cruz tried Wednesday night to amend the bill to require an affirmative vote by Congress in order for the deal to take effect, but he was blocked. "All this amendment does is ensure that the burden is on President Obama to persuade Congress and the American people that the deal is a good one, or at a very minimum is not a terrible threat to the national security of the United States of America," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had to fight off efforts by Cruz and Sen. Cotton to amend his bill, and was able to do so with clear support from nearly every Senate Republican. But even McConnell said he wanted the bill to be tougher.
"If we didn’t face the threats of filibusters, or the blocking of amendments, or the specter of presidential vetoes, this bill would be a heck of a lot stronger," he said Thursday morning.
"But the truth is, we do," he added. "That's the frustrating reality. The response to this should not be to give the American people no say at all on a deal with Iran. The response should be to overcome those challenges in a way that will give Congress and the American people the best possible chance to review any possible deal and affect its outcome."
Just before the final vote, the Senate voted 93-6 to end debate on the bill and move to a final vote. The only "no" votes then were from Sens. Cotton, Cruz, Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Mike Lee (Utah), Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Daniel Sullivan (Alaska.).
In the end, only Cotton stuck to his "no" vote at the last stage.
Senate passage means the House will have a chance to consider it as early as next week, when the lower chamber returns from a week-long recess.