WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry personally pleaded with House Republicans and Democrats on Monday to give the Obama administration more room to negotiate a final nuclear deal with Iran, but several lawmakers said they remained skeptical and a bill to give Congress a say about a deal gained momentum.
Republicans and Democrats who maintain that Congress should be able to weigh in on an international deal with Tehran to curb its nuclear program have lined up behind the legislation. President Barack Obama has pushed back, threatening a veto while warning that Congress should not take any action before negotiators from the U.S., Iran and five other nations have a chance to reach a deal by the end of June.
"We have two and a half months more to negotiate, that's a serious amount of time with some serious business left to do," Kerry told reporters outside a congressional auditorium where he was giving a closed-door briefing. "We hope Congress listens carefully and ask the questions that it wants. But also give us the space and the time to be able to complete a very difficult task which has high stakes for our country."
A Senate panel is set to vote Tuesday on the intensely debated bill that would give Congress a say on a potential deal aimed at keeping Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
"There have been some tweaks," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Monday evening. "I'm hopeful that we're going to be successful tomorrow."
He said there was a possibility that a new version would be introduced. It would be designed to be more palatable to lawmakers who have sought changes in the bill, such as shortening from 60 days to 30 days the length of time that Congress would have to review any final deal that's reached.
"Now that we've got the broad outlines of the framework and we're getting more thorough briefings from the White house, we should be able to review and provide input on the bill responsibly in 30 days or less," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
Asked whether a new version could win a veto-proof majority in the full Senate, Corker replied, "We are moving in a very positive direction and we've worked through some issues that I think give me a lot of hope that that could well be the case."
Corker, who introduced the bill with Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., also said he was optimistic that there was rising support for a full Senate vote quickly, instead of delaying a vote until after the deadline for the agreement at the end of June.
Corker has been working closely with Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee. Cardin also said he was "optimistic that an agreement can be reached."
On the House side, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Monday he will bring the bill to the floor if the Senate acts on legislation giving Congress the power to review any deal.
After the private briefing with members of the House, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said he was not convinced the framework deal Kerry described is as good as it needs to be. "I was skeptical before. I remain skeptical," he said.
Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., criticized Kerry's demeanor and said he didn't buy the secretary's substantive arguments.
"Honestly, it sounds like somebody was trying to sell me a car," Salmon said.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said Congress has already given the administration enough time. "Even if he succeeds in this," Rohrabacher said, "I don't think we are going to be any safer."
Under the bill being considered, Obama could unilaterally lift or ease any sanctions that were imposed on Iran through presidential executive means. But the bill would prohibit him for 60 days from suspending, waiving or otherwise easing any sanctions that Congress levied 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 providing Iran with any relief from congressional sanctions.
Iran says its program is for civilian purposes, but the U.S. and its negotiating partners suspect Tehran is keen to become a nuclear-armed powerhouse in the Middle East, where it already holds much sway.
At the White House, Obama met for several hours with two groups of Jewish leaders in another part of the campaign to win support for a deal. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is intensely skeptical that international negotiators can reach a verifiable deal with Iran, which has threatened to destroy Israel, some American Jewish groups have backed the international negotiations.
Three participants in the meeting said Obama explained the details of the deal to the group and urged them not to let any internal divisions torpedo a final deal. He did not, however, explicitly ask them to lobby members of Congress for support. The list of those invited to attend the two sessions Monday spanned the ideological spectrum, including groups like J Street that have been supportive of the deal and more right-leaning groups like AIPAC that have been deeply skeptical.
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Donna Cassata and Erica Warner contributed to this report.