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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Robert Menendez blasted the U.S.-led international nuclear deal with Iran on Tuesday, vowing to oppose it in defiance of President Barack Obama, who picked up much-needed support for the deal from two other Senate Democrats.
As September voting on the agreement in the U.S. Congress neared, Menendez, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, became the second senior lawmaker from Obama's own party to announce he would vote to kill the pact with Tehran.
"I will vote to disapprove the agreement and, if called upon, would vote to override a veto" by the president, Menendez said in a speech in his home state of New Jersey.
Shortly later, Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, both of Rhode Island, announced that they would support the agreement. Reed sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee and could help sway other Democrats' views on the matter.
Republicans almost unanimously oppose the agreement and plan to schedule votes in Congress on a "resolution of disapproval" against it by Sept. 17. Obama is trying to gather enough support among Democrats to sustain a veto of the resolution.
Twenty-three of the Senate's 44 Democrats have announced their support for the agreement, which would impose new curbs on Tehran's nuclear program in return for easing economic sanctions. Iran denies it wants to make a nuclear weapon.
That level of Senate support is 11 votes short of the 34 Obama would need to prevent the Senate from killing the deal.
Earlier this month, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said he would vote against the deal, which was negotiated by the United States, five other major powers and Iran. Schumer said he would work to persuade other senators to oppose it too, signaling that there are deep divisions within the Democratic Party on the issue.
Senator Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat, supports the deal. Democratic Leader Harry Reid will declare his position when the Senate returns from recess on Sept. 7, when lobbying and debate in Congress over the deal is expected to intensify.
If the agreement were to go into effect, Menendez said, it would hurt national security while abandoning a long-held U.S. policy of preventing nuclear proliferation. Instead, he said, it would establish a policy of "managing" nuclear proliferation.
Despite his stance against the Iran deal, it is not clear how much Menendez would influence other Democrats.
A senior Obama administration official said the announcement had been expected and would not alter White House plans. "The strategy is the exact same today as it was yesterday," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
State Department spokesman John Kirby expressed confidence the Iran deal will win congressional support but added that Secretary of State John Kerry is reaching out to lawmakers.
Privately, backers of the deal say that while they still hope to have enough votes in the Senate to sustain an Obama veto, they are even more confident of doing so in the House of Representatives. Success in either chamber will ensure the deal survives.
Republicans say the deal gives too much ground to Iran and threatens the security of Israel, a major U.S. ally in the Middle East.
The speech by Menendez, a strong backer of Israel, at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, contained a detailed, technical analysis of the agreement. He pointed out that throughout Obama's term in office he has mainly backed the Democratic president, voting for Wall Street and healthcare reforms and other major initiatives.
Menendez was indicted on corruption charges in April. He has pleaded not guilty and vowed to fight the allegations.
He questioned Obama's threats to ultimately take military action against Iran if it went ahead with making a nuclear bomb. "We should authorize now the means for Israel to address the Iranian threat on their own in the event that Iran accelerates its program and to counter Iranian perceptions that our own threat to use force is not credible," he said.
He also criticized Republicans, who he said "reflexively oppose everything the president proposes."
"While I have many specific concerns about this agreement, my overarching concern is that it requires no dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and only mothballs that infrastructure for 10 years. Not even one centrifuge will be destroyed under this agreement," Menendez said.
He urged the Obama administration to go back to the negotiating table to rework the main elements, something the Obama administration says would be impossible.
The non-partisan Arms Control Association on Tuesday said 70 nuclear non-proliferation experts issued a statement in support, calling it "a strong, long-term and verifiable agreement that will be a net-plus for international nuclear non-proliferation efforts."
Additional reporting by Warren Strobel, Arshad Mohammed and Andy Sullivan, with Sebastien Malo in South Orange, N.J.; Writing by Richard Cowan; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, David Storey, Grant McCool and Jonathan Oatis