Sen. McCaskill pivotal, but so far noncommittal, on Iran deal

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, is photographed in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., February 16, 2012
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, is photographed in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., February 16, 2012 MCT

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri could cast a pivotal vote on a bill that the White House has said violates President Barack Obama’s right to conduct foreign policy, and could effectively kill the nuclear deal with Iran.

Introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, would require congressional review of any Iranian nuclear deal and prohibit the lifting of sanctions for at least 60 days.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough warned in a letter to Corker last month that the bill could have a “profoundly negative impact on the ongoing negotiations” and “potentially prevent any deal from succeeding.”

The bill now appears to be one vote shy a veto-proof majority in the Senate. And McCaskill, a moderate Democrat, is on the fence.

She is one of a handful of centrist Democrats who has bucked her party before on votes crucial to Republicans’ agenda in the Senate – or to Democratic efforts to block the GOP. Recently, she sided with Republicans in a failed attempt to override Obama’s veto of a bill approving construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Republicans need 13 Democrats to vote with them to reach the 67-vote threshold to overcome a presidential veto.

So far, eight Democrats and one Independent who votes with the Democrats, Sen. Angus King of Maine, have signed on as cosponsors of the Iran bill, including Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Three additional Democrats have indicated they’d support it: Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia, Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Christopher Coons of Delaware.

McCaskill is waiting to see a final draft of the legislation before committing one way or another, her spokesman said, a position that could make her the target of intense lobbying from both Republicans and the Obama administration.

“Without knowing what legislation will come out of the Foreign Relations Committee, Claire’s reserving judgment until we see that product,” said John LaBombard, McCaskill’s spokesman.

McCaskill strongly believes that Congress needs to have a role in the process, LaBombard said, but she also believes “that we should refrain from any action that could disrupt the negotiations prematurely and give the Iranians an excuse to abandon these talks and blame the U.S.”

Democrats wary of scuttling the nascent deal with Iran could negotiate changes to the bill before a scheduled vote in the Foreign Relations Committee next Tuesday. After that, it’s likely to go before the full Senate for a vote late this month or next. Negotiators have until June 30 to hammer out the final details of an agreement with Iran.

Obama told the New York Times in an interview on Saturday that he’s concerned the framework of a deal with Iran is vulnerable to “backtracking and slippage and real political difficulties, both in Iran and obviously here in the United States Congress.”

His hope, he added, “is that we can find something that allows Congress to express itself but does not encroach on traditional presidential prerogatives — and ensures that, if in fact we get a good deal, that we can go ahead and implement it.”

The White House has “reached out very aggressively” to members of Congress to make the case that Iran has committed to curtail – and in some areas roll back – the scope of its nuclear program, said White House spokesman Josh Earnest in a press briefing on Monday.

“We want members of Congress to consider possible action based on the merits of the agreement,” Earnest said. “We’re confident that if they do, that they will respect the purview of the president’s authority.”

He accused Republicans of trying to undermine the deal, but acknowledged that some Democrats want Congress to have the opportunity to weigh in.

“What we have said is, ‘Look, it is clearly within the purview of the president of the United States to conduct foreign policy,” Earnest said, “and we do believe that Congress should play their rightful role in terms of ultimately deciding whether or not the sanctions that Congress passed into law should be removed.’”

White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

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