Senators voted overwhelmingly Thursday to force President Obama to submit to Congress any nuclear deal he reaches with Iran, giving lawmakers a final say before the administration cancels economic sanctions on the Islamic nation.
The 98-1 vote was a rebuke to Mr. Obama, who would prefer to have a free hand to negotiate with Iran, but will now likely have to make sure whatever terms he strikes can gain approval of enough members of Congress to stick.
The House must still vote to approve the bill, but passage there is all but certain later this month, with Republican leaders who control that chamber strongly supportive of the effort to insist Mr. Obama come to Congress before lifting any of the sanctions that have pressured Iran into negotiating in the first place.
“This bill ensures we have that opportunity,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who wrote the legislation and worked with key Democrats, including Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, to earn the overwhelming bipartisan vote.
Under the terms of the bill, Mr. Obama must submit to Congress any deal he reaches with Iran, and lawmakers then have a limited time to disapprove of it. If they don’t, he can lift the sanctions unilaterally. Even if they do pass a disapproval, Mr. Obama could veto it, and it would take a two-thirds vote of each chamber to override him and cancel the deal.
On Thursday, 151 House Democrats sent a letter saying they back Mr. Obama’s negotiations strategy — more than enough to sustain the president, should it come to that.
Mr. Obama and other major world powers reached the outlines of a deal with Iran last month that would pump the brakes on that nation’s nuclear fuel enrichment activities, which inspectors say are designed to produce materials to make atomic bombs. Under the outline, whose details are still disputed between the sides, the U.S. and other nations would lift sanctions, and Iran would reduce its uranium stockpiles and enrichment capabilities so it would be at least a year away from a nuclear weapon.
All sides are now working to finalize that deal by the end of June.
Mr. Obama had hoped to be able to lift sanctions on his own by using a waiver Congress wrote into the sanctions law, which grants the president the power to suspend sanctions if he deems it in the country’s national security interest.
But Mr. Corker said they never expected the president would use the suspension power as a permanent waiver, and so they had to rush to write new rules. Under the terms of the bill that cleared the Senate on Thursday, Mr. Obama would have to submit any final agreement to Capitol Hill and then give Congress a chance to have a say before the sanctions are lifted.
The White House had pondered threatening a veto, Mr. Corker said, but relented when it saw Democrats working with Republicans to insist on a say for Congress.
The president did win some major concessions, including forcing Republicans to drop a number of amendments that would have insisted sanctions be kept in place until Mr. Obama certified Iran wasn’t engaged in terrorism against the U.S., and proved the country had released three Americans it is holding in prison.
“You would think if you were negotiating something as significant as preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon, the very least you could do is release these prisoners,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who’d hoped to offer an amendment requiring their release.
Mr. Obama also wanted to avoid a debate over pro-Israel amendments, such as requiring Iran to declare it accepts Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. GOP and Democratic leaders agreed to block out all amendments, saying it was more important to preserve the carefully crafted compromise.
Sen. Tom Cotton, a freshman Arkansas Republican, was the lone senator to vote against the bill. He said Congress was giving up its powers by putting the burden on Congress to stop a deal, rather than on the White House to sell it in the first place.
“A nuclear-arms agreement with any adversary — especially the terror-sponsoring, Islamist Iranian regime — should be submitted as a treaty and obtain a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate as required by the Constitution,” Mr. Cotton said.