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Obama Ducks Fight On Iran Deal — For Now

/ Source: NBC News

The White House, by grudgingly yielding to Congress' right to weigh in on a nuclear deal with Iran, has managed to dodge—for now—a domestic policy fight that could have potentially scuttled the Obama administration's delicate negotiations.

"The White House secured some changes to the bill that made it more palatable, so the president has agreed to sign and he’s ducked for now an unpleasant fight he might well have lost," said Larry Sabato, a politics professor and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "When a president is fighting his own party in addition to the opposition party, it’s not a good sign for him."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved a bipartisan measure on Tuesday requiring President Barack Obama to give Congress the details of any agreement on Iran.

Still, it’s been an uncomfortable few weeks for the Oval Office.

The White House has faced inter-party rebellion, Republican backlash and an international showdown with Israel's prime minister as the Obama administration works to cobble a tenuous framework aimed at keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

"We've gone from a piece of legislation that the president would veto to a piece of legislation that's undergone substantial revision such that it's now in the form of a compromise that the president is willing to sign," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the president did not respond to a shouted question from the press on whether he caved on the legislation.

For its part, the White House moved cautiously and held private conversations with wary Democratic lawmakers.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said over the past 12 days the administration has made 130 calls to help clear up “misrepresentations” about the ongoing negotiations. Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew were dispatched to the Hill on Tuesday to help assuage worried lawmakers' concerns.

Concerns like those expressed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. who hopes to lead the Senate’s minority caucus after Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev retires.

Schumer and many of the nine Democratic senate colleagues who co-sponsored a more stringent version of the legislation hail from states such as New York, Florida and New Jersey with high Jewish populations. The lawmakers found themselves between a rock and a hard place as they tried to balance their congressional prerogative to weigh in on foreign policy matters with the White House's own ambitions and the pro-Israel lobby’s concerns over whether Iran can be trusted to uphold any agreement struck.

“On Iran, there are both Democrats who feel the White House's proposed interim deal is not tough enough and puts allies like Israel and Gulf States at risk and those who feel the Congress should have more say over any ultimate deal,” said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and editor of Foreign Policy Group, a collection of foreign policy publications. “Chuck Schumer, the likely next Democratic leader in the Senate is one of these and, given his emerging leadership role, the stand-off between him and the White House should be interesting to watch.”

Indeed, Schumer, who is generally quite vocal on Israeli issues, has been largely mum after his recent comments to Politico in an emailed statement that “I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement and I support the Corker bill which would allow that to occur.”

In the meantime, the Oval Office has faced additional headaches as it contended with Republican lawmakers who wrote an open letter to Iran last month expressing their disagreement with ongoing negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added to tensions when he, against the White House’s wishes, addressed a joint session of Congress last month and declared that the Iran nuclear framework would fail.

“This is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal,” Netanyahu told members of Congress.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has expressed continued skepticism over the State Department's and Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei's seemingly divergent views of the deal.

"It is undeniable that the version of the nuclear agreement outlined by the Obama Administration is far different from the one described by Iran's Supreme Leader - on inspections, sanctions relief and other critically important issues," McCain said in a statement over the weekend.

The president hit back at the suggestion that Kerry "is somehow less trustworthy in the interpretation of what's in a political agreement than the Supreme Leader of Iran."

"That's an indication of the degree to which partisanship has crossed all boundaries," Obama told reporters last week. "And we're seeing this again and again. We saw it with the letter by the 47 senators who communicated directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran — the person that they say can't be trusted at all — warning him not to trust the United States government."

Tensions may soon take a turn, however.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., helped hammer out a compromise that removed some of the provisions the White House objected to as overly stringent while ensuring that Congress would still have time to review the deal.

According to congressional aides, the compromise bill requires the president to submit the final agreement to Congress and lawmakers would have roughly a month to review the details—however that period could be extended in some circumstances. Congress would get 60 days to review the proposal if they aren’t given enough time before the summer recess to review.

The president would be prohibited from waiving the congressional sanctions while the proposal is under review.

During Tuesday’s briefing, the White House said the "compromise" measure in its current form is one that the president would likely sign since the review period was cut to 30 days and language requiring certification that Iran wouldn’t support terrorist attacks on Americans was removed.

The measure now goes to the Senate floor where GOP leadership expects it to pass, congressional aides told NBC News. The president could still veto the measure, but supporters feel confident they have enough votes to override.

“There are ways for Democratic legislators to express their support for Israel but still assert their institutional right to have a say in this crucial international negotiation,” Sabato said. “It’s hard to believe that, if it came to it, Democrats would provide the votes for a veto override, the first of Obama’s presidency and a sign of serious lame-duck status.”