Dicey Senate negotiations to follow Trump decision on Iran

President Donald Trump is expected to take a crucial step to preserve the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal on Friday — and then, for Congress, comes the hard part.

Trump is reportedly set to heed the recommendation of his advisers and keep extending sanctions relief to Iran, giving senior senators in both parties more time for talks on legislation rejiggering the nuclear pact that were already advancing on the edge of a knife.

Any Iran measure that can be agreed on by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker and the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin, would have to navigate past hostility from hawks who would prefer to unravel the nuclear agreement and view Trump as their natural ally. That’s not to mention guaranteed skepticism of any changes to the nuclear deal from liberals who hailed the agreement that former President Barack Obama reached to curtail Tehran’s nuclear program.

and Cardin, working with the president’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, have made some progress on the outlines of a plan to tweak the 2015 legislation that gave Congress power to review the nuclear deal. But their negotiations won’t truly heat up until Trump weighs in on further sanctions relief, a move that may yet slip to the weekend.

Even then, winning 60 votes for a new Iran measure will prove a herculean task. At least it’s one that some colleagues in both parties are rooting for them to succeed at.

“If anybody can do it, Cardin and Corker can,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the foreign relations panel, said in an interview.

“But it’s a really difficult needle to thread. You’re not going to get Democratic votes for rewriting the deal. But then it’s hard to figure out how you get Republican votes if you aren’t at least changing the way in which the deal ends.”

The Senate GOP’s No. 3 leader, John Thune of South Dakota, also gave the bipartisan duo a vote of confidence. “Corker’s working on a solution with Cardin and some other Democrats,” he told reporters, “and I hope they can get there.”

One key ingredient to the political formula for preservation of the nuclear pact is the addition of new non-nuclear sanctions on Iran. Congress afforded Trump new powers to punish Tehran for its ballistic missile program, human rights violations and support for terrorism as part of a sweeping sanctions bill that became law last year, and lawmakers in both parties are expecting those penalties to get rolled out in the coming days.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), an influential hawk who raised concerns last fall about a plan to tweak the nuclear deal’s conditions for reinstituting sanctions, said on Thursday that if Trump opted to keep giving Iran nuclear-related sanctions relief, the president should flex his muscle using those powers already approved by Congress.

“The deeply flawed Obama ‘Iran deal’ should not be a grant of immunity to Iran from sanctions related to non-nuclear activities,” Rubio said in a statement.

But the imposition of new non-nuclear sanctions won’t necessarily be enough to win the votes of conservatives such as Rubio for any accord that Corker and Cardin can reach on strengthening the terms of the U.S.-Iran pact.

Lawmakers can’t renegotiate the terms of the nuclear agreement reached by the Obama administration in 2015 — to which Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China are also parties — and are instead crafting changes to the legislation that gave Congress review power over the accord with Iran. Corker has said since he began Iran talks with Cardin that he wants a bipartisan solution, and Democrats have made clear that they won’t endorse any new bill that would alienate European allies or otherwise derail the nuclear deal.

Cardin reiterated on Thursday that he and Corker were seeking “a broad vote” on any proposal they can craft, which both senators have indicated could get attached to must-pass fiscal legislation that Congress is expected to take up in the coming weeks.

Democrats are largely remaining open to any proposal that emerges from the Corker-Cardin talks, though they’re hardly committing to voting yes.

Cardin met with his party’s other members on the foreign relations panel last week, “and there was a general sentiment that we should try and see if there’s common ground,” Murphy said. “But I think it’s difficult.”

“Sure, we want to see what they may come up with,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in an interview. “I mean, the devil’s in the details.”

The calculus is trickier within the GOP, which united against the Iran deal when Obama inked it. Republican leaders supported Trump’s decision in October to deem Iran out of compliance with the deal while holding off on reimposing sanctions that would effectively kill it outright. Still, Corker will have his work cut out for him when selling the result of his talks with Cardin.

Asked on Thursday whether he foresaw support from within Republican ranks, Corker said only that “we’ll see,”

“It’s evolving,” the Tennessee Republican added, noting that “the big thing is what the president is going to do” ahead of a series of deadlines to continue giving sanctions relief to Iran.

Trump is poised to announce Friday that he will continue waiving sanctions on Iran that were lifted under the nuclear deal, while putting lawmakers on notice that he would not extend relief again without a legislative solution, The New York Times reported late Thursday.

That decision is likely to inject a sense of urgency into lawmakers’ Iran talks, and it may also assuage concerns about blowing up the agreement that are shared by even some Republicans who opposed the deal in 2015. One of those Republicans, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, on Thursday aligned himself with the camp of onetime GOP critics seeking space for Corker and Cardin to try to salvage the nuclear agreement.

“The last thing we need to do is let the Iranian government off the hook for commitments that they’ve made, and getting out of the deal completely would do that,” Flake said. “So, I hope we have more time.”

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