President Obama began a charm offensive over the weekend in search of support for his tentative nuclear deal with Iran, but wasted little time trying to win over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other intractable opponents.
Instead, he focused on Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the new chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who will have much to say about the shape of legislation granting Congress a 60-day review of the final agreement in June and the right to withhold sanction relief for Iran if the deal is unacceptable.
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During a weekend interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Obama described the former mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, as “somebody who is sincerely concerned about this issue and is a good and decent man.”
“My hope 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,” Obama said.
Corker is no push over and is certain to press for tough terms in the bill that will be taken up in committee April 14, after Congress returns from a two-week recess. But unlike Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and other adamant opponents of the preliminary agreement, the low-key Corker is trying to steer the debate toward a sensible middle ground.
Under the agreement reached in Switzerland last Thursday, Iran would agree to curtail its nuclear program for 15 years in return for relief from sanctions that have devastated its economy.
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“This is a place for sober and thoughtful people to dig in, Corker said yesterday on Fox News Sunday, in discussing the importance of Congress playing a key role in reviewing the nuclear framework agreement negotiated by the U.S., Iran and five other countries. “It’s very important that Congress is in the middle of this.”
Corker was cagey in passing initial judgement on the provisional agreement. With conflicting descriptions of the deal coming out of Washington, D.C., and Iran, he said, “I think it would be very difficult to ascertain at this moment” precisely what’s in the agreement.
He identified several “red flags” in the framework agreement, including uncertainty over the timing of lifting the sanctions and the process by which the International Atomic Energy Agency could conduct meaningful inspections.
“There’s a lot of water that needs to go under the bridge yet,” said the folksy, 62-year-old Tennessean.
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Corker said Obama must convince the Senate and House as well as the American people that finalizing the agreement is in the best interest of the U.S. and Israel, its principal ally in the Middle East.
During his interview with The New York Times on Saturday, Obama characterized the framework as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to curb the spread of nuclear weapons in a volatile region – while maintaining safeguards in the event Iran breaches the agreement.
“This is our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon,” he said. “What we will be doing even as we enter into this deal is sending a very clear message to the Iranians and to the entire region that if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there.”
During an interview with CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, Netanyahu called the tentative agreement with Iran “a very bad deal” that would present an imminent threat to his country.
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Corker indicated that he was open to an agreement that would curtail Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon, but stressed that Congress needs to be playing a role.” The bipartisan bill that he and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) co-authored would have real teeth and would allow Congress to block any lifting of sanctions if Congress concluded the deal with Iran was a bad one.
He ruled out an approach favored by the administration that would allow Congress to voice its views through a non-binding resolution. The president has repeatedly promised to closely consult with Congress on the agreement while insisting that the president has the authority to make the ultimate decision.
Corker told The Washington Post recently that he enjoys good relations with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Vice President Biden and their top advisers, but he has no strong relationship with Obama and his West Wing advisers.
Corker, a former Tennessee businessman and city leader, was first elected in 2006. He quickly showed a bent for working across party lines, although he had limited success in the role of Senate dealmaker.
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For instance, he tried to intervene in negotiations over the $700 billion Wall Street rescue package, the auto bailout and the Dodd-Frank overhaul of financial regulations, but fell short in all those endeavors, according to The Post. Part of the problem was that he was too new to be able to deliver GOP votes.
Corker knew relatively little about foreign policy when he joined the Foreign Relations Committee, and acknowledged that one of his goals was “to broaden myself.”
He became the ranking minority member of the committee after Indiana’s Richard Lugar, one of the Senate’s most respected and knowledgeable voices on foreign policy, lost to tea party favorite Richard Mourdock in the 2012 Republican primary. In January, he was elevated to Chair of Foreign Relations after the Republicans regained control of the Senate.
Now Corker is facing a full plate of challenges, including the Iran nuclear deal and faltering efforts to reach consensus on new war powers for Obama in battling ISIS and other terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
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