Senate Republican leaders ditched plans Thursday to take up a bill next week that would have given Congress an up-or-down vote on any agreement international negotiators – led by the United States – make with Iran on its nuclear program, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN.
The move comes after Democrats, who were upset GOP leaders decided to fast-track the legislation, threatened to block taking up the bill. Democrats fear immediate consideration could disrupt the sensitive talks with Iran that face an important March 24 deadline.
Skeptical the administration can cut a tough deal with Iran, Republicans wanted to act quickly on the bill, which was introduced just last week by the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Republicans hoped to seize on momentum from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s powerful address to a joint meeting of Congress Tuesday, in which he urged the U.S. not to accept an agreement with Iran that would leave that country on track to build nuclear weapons in the near future.
The measure is opposed by the Obama administration, which said this week it would veto it. But Democrats, mindful of the White House’s objections, have already felt divided on the issue and were critical of what they saw as partisan motives in the decision by Republican House Speaker John Boehner to invited Netanyahu to deliver an address to Congress arguing against the president’s policy on Iran.
Senate Democratic aides said they believe that disrupting Democratic support for the bill was McConnell’s aim all along — to again drive a wedge between the two parties on Israel, and make it seem as though Democrats aren’t as supportive of the Middle East nation and as tough on national security issues as Republicans.
Though McConnell denied speeding up consideration of the bill for partisan ends, both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill hoping to move forward with the measure told CNN that the move to fast-track the bill had poisoned the well and undermined progress on getting Democrats to sign on.
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, who sponsored the bill along with Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, penned a letter along Wednesday with 10 fellow Democratic supporters of the bill saying that they would oppose voting on it before March 24.
In a statement Thursday, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said he was pleased McConnell had backed off his fast-track plan, which Reid charged was motivated by politics.
“Senator McConnell made the right decision by heeding calls from Democrats and Republicans to back off his transparently political move. Protecting Israel and the world from a nuclear-armed Iran is too important of an issue to use in partisan political games,” Reid said.
“As leaders we should seek to build and cultivate bipartisan support for Israel, not try to score cheap political points. Democrats and Republicans joined together to ask Senator McConnell to reconsider his decision to rush this bill to the floor without the input of the senators who have worked so hard for months on this issue and he did the right thing by heeding their advice.”
Corker said in a statement that putting off a vote is the right call because it would allow the bill – once it does eventually come to the floor – to get what he hopes will be enough votes in the Senate to override a veto.
“The strongest signal we can send to the U.S. negotiators is having a veto-proof majority in support of Congress weighing in on any final nuclear deal with Iran,” Corker said, emphasizing that the bill is still gaining support as four additional Democrats signed on.
He added that he appreciated McConnell’s commitment to getting the bill “across the finish line” by scheduling a vote “at a time when we will more likely generate a veto-proof majority.”