WASHINGTON — Democratic senators are intent on changing a bill that would give Congress a say in an emerging nuclear deal with Iran — tweaks that could make it more palatable to President Barack Obama, who called two key senators on Wednesday to lobby against undermining diplomatic efforts to end a standoff with Tehran.
The president's calls to Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, were the latest consultations in the White House's robust lobbying campaign to convince Congress that an international framework agreement reached last week is the best way to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
"I am trying to bridge the differences here - not that I feel I'll be able to get the president as a cheerleader to the bill but try to deal with some legitimate concerns," Cardin said in an interview.
"We look forward to continuing to work with Senator Cardin, a thoughtful and principled lawmaker and longstanding foreign policy expert," in his role as ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said White House spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman. "The president raised with Senator Cardin the importance of ensuring that our negotiating team has the space they need to achieve and implement a good deal that verifiably prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
Cardin, who spoke with the president for about 15 minutes, said he hopes an amended bill can carry out two purposes: provide Congress with an orderly way to review any final agreement reached with Iran and mandate periodic reports on compliance so Congress can take action if Iran violates a final deal - if it can be reached.
Obama has threatened to veto the bill, which was introduced by Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
Standing by the president, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi voiced her opposition to the Corker-Menendez bill, saying it undermines the ongoing nuclear negotiations and constructs an "unnecessary hurdle to achieving a strong, final agreement."
"To force Congress to weigh in now on the Iran nuclear talks before a final deal has been completed would be a reckless rush to judgment," Pelosi said, adding that more than 50 foreign policy and military leaders have urged Congress not to take any action that would impede progress toward reaching a final deal.
Whether the measure could garner a two-thirds majority in the full Senate to override a presidential veto is not known, but it's clear there is bipartisan support for finding a way for Congress to weigh in on any deal, regardless of whether the White House wants it to or not.
"I would hope that if we get it done the way I'm hoping to get it done that the concerns that the president has raised" will be addressed, said Cardin, who is proposing more than a handful of amendments. "Now, the president may feel compelled because of separation of powers to veto it. I understand that."
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama's conversation with Corker was not an opportunity for the two men to negotiate the terms of legislation, but rather to help members of Congress understand exactly what's included in the commitments that Iran has made thus far and make sure negotiators have the time and space to complete a final agreement by the end of June.
On Capitol Hill, the focus is on the committee, which is scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday.
As it's written, the Corker-Menendez bill would require Obama to submit any final agreement reached with Iran to Congress within five days. It would require Obama to send a report that explains the extent to which the secretary of state will be able to verify that Iran is complying with the deal. The bill also would require the White House to certify that the agreement does not jeopardize U.S. national security, including preventing Iran from pursuing nuclear-related military activities.
In implementing any final deal, Obama could lift sanctions imposed through presidential action, but the bill would prohibit him - for 60 days - from suspending, waiving or otherwise easing any sanctions that Congress imposed on Iran. During that 60-day period, Congress could hold hearings and approve, disapprove or take no action on any final nuclear agreement with Iran.
If Congress passed a joint resolution approving a final deal - or took no action - Obama could move ahead to ease sanctions levied by Congress. But if Congress passed a joint resolution disapproving it, Obama would be blocked from implementing any relief of congressional sanctions.
After the 60-day congressional review period, the bill requires the president to assess Iran's compliance with the agreement at three-month intervals. If the president cannot certify Iran's compliance, or if he determines there has been a breach of the deal, the bill says Congress could quickly vote to restore sanctions that had been waived or suspended.
There's one provision of Corker-Menendez that has especially irked the White House. The bill calls on the Obama administration to certify that Iran has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or an American anywhere in the world.
The White House is opposed to hinging any deal to U.S. concerns about Iranian support of terrorist groups. Administration officials insist they are only negotiating an agreement to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. An amendment proposed by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., would strip that provision from the bill.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., also filed an amendment that strikes the terrorism certification requirement — something he said was outside the scope of the nuclear agreement — and clarifies that Congress retains the ability to stiffen sanctions on Iran for its support of terrrorist activity. Another Murphy amendment would allow the president to waive sanctions during the 60-day congressional review period if a failure to waive them would cause the U.S. to breach a final agreement reached with Iran.
Another Democratic member of the committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, has introduced her own Iran congressional oversight bill. It seeks to ensure that Congress has a central role in overseeing any nuclear deal with Iran, requires the Obama administration to report to Congress about Iran's compliance and sets up an expedited process for Congress to reinstate sanctions if Tehran violates the deal.
In a letter to Corker late Wednesday, Boxer urged him to delay a committee vote, warning that congressional action now "could derail a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deal with this looming threat."
If the committee goes ahead, Boxer said she would file an amendment that would urge the committee to delay a vote until a final agreement could be reached. "It would simply be irresponsible to vote on legislation before we have seen the final terms of a deal," she said.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.