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Congress, Obama do a delicate dance on Iran

The real drama is starting to shift -- away from Capitol Hill and towards next week's negotiations in Vienna.
A man jogs past the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 30, 2013.
A man jogs past the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 30, 2013.
After months of drama, heated debate, and unprecedented attempts at sabotage, yesterday's Senate vote dealing with nuclear diplomacy with Iran lacked any real drama. There's a delicate dance underway, and at least for now, the relevant players haven't lost their footing.
NBC News' Frank Thorp reported yesterday on the lopsided vote in the Senate.

The Senate voted to give lawmakers a chance to weigh in on any nuclear deal the White House seeks to hammer out with Iran -- a measure that requires President Barack Obama submit any agreement struck between that nation and world powers to Congress. The vote was 98-1 on a bill that would give Congress at least a month to review the details of an agreement. During the review, the president would be prevented from lifting congressionally imposed sanctions on Iran.

The final roll call on the 98-1 vote is online here. Note, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who tried to derail the bipartisan bill with poison-pill amendments, was the lone vote in opposition. A couple of months ago, the right-wing Arkansan led a group of 47 Senate Republicans, urging Iranian officials not to trust the United States. Yesterday, Cotton was reduced to a caucus of one.
Also note, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Republican presidential hopeful, also tried to undermine the Corker/Cordin bill with a poison-pill provision of his own, but his colleagues ignored his push and he ended up voting for the bill anyway.
The bill now heads to the House, where many far-right GOP lawmakers -- including members of the so-called "Freedom Caucus" -- intend to pick up where Cotton left off, hoping to defeat the legislation by moving it much further to the right.
If it passes the House anyway, President Obama is prepared to sign the bill into law. Whereas it was the left that originally rang the alarm about Congress potentially derailing international diplomacy, it's now the right that's strongly opposed to the pending proposal. How did we get to this point?
The details make all the difference. The original plan was spearheaded by White House opponents -- and even some Democratic hawks -- to pass legislation that would effectively give Congress veto power over any international agreement. President Obama and his team might strike a deal with Iran and our allies, but the idea was to give Capitol Hill the final say.
Obama, of course, would never go for that, but proponents believed they might be able to pass these constraints by such a large margin that Congress would overrule the president's objections.
But that original plan fell apart, replaced with the package that overwhelmingly passed the Senate yesterday. The right hates this scaled-back approach, as Vox's Zack Beauchamp explained last week, precisely because it's unlikely to undermine American foreign policy.

The congressional oversight bill, named Corker-Cardin after Corker and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, is a carefully crafted compromise.... The bill gives both sides a bit of what they want — by changing very little about the status quo. Current law gives the president pretty wide discretion to suspend sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. Corker-Cardin would delay his ability to do that immediately, giving Congress between 30 and 82 days (depending on details) to review a White House report on the deal and vote on it. Because any nuclear deal with Iran depends on giving the Iranians sanctions relief at one point, this effectively gives Congress the ability to hold up full implementation of any deal for at least a month.

But that's about all it does. If international negotiators reach an agreement -- still a big "if" -- this bill does not empower Congress to veto the deal. In practical terms, lawmakers may eventually vote to disapprove of an agreement, but that would draw a presidential veto, which Congress would probably be unable to override.
Indeed, that became clearer yesterday with the Washington Post's Greg Sargent's report on 150 House Democrats siding with the administration on nuclear diplomacy.
The real drama, in other words, is starting to shift -- away from Capitol Hill and towards next week's negotiations in Vienna.