Mitch McConnell has leverage on Iran sanctions that could push Harry Reid to the negotiating table. The question now is whether he'll use it.
Many Republicans and several Democrats publicly say they want a vote on sanctions legislation, even as the administration unleashes an aggressive lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill this week to stop such bills from going forward.
Despite that support, however, few trust that Reid is in any hurry to buck the Obama administration's most pressing foreign policy objective: The White House insists that sanctions—even those that would kick in after the roughly six-month negotiating window with Iran runs out—could sunder delicate negotiations on the country's nuclear program.
But both parties want to pass a defense bill, and that's where McConnell has a pressure point: demanding a vote on sanctions in exchange for supporting a fast-track plan to get the National Defense Authorization Act finished before year's end.
McConnell took a step in that direction this week when he balked at the fast-track plan—which would not allow for amendments—by calling it "a rather transparent attempt to prevent a vote on enhanced Iran sanctions."
The question is how McConnell will weigh the push for sanctions, said Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies with the American Enterprise Institute. "I've never seen McConnell as hard over the question of Iran sanctions, so the real issue with him will be whether he wishes to see the defense bill go or not," Pletka said. "At the end of the day, there are a lot of people who are pretty hard over the Iran sanctions for sure, but are they willing to sacrifice this for that?"
But digging in on sanctions is not without its risks. The House is expected to approve the defense bill this week before it adjourns, which would jam the Senate, handing the upper chamber a take-it-or-leave-it choice. And if neither side blinks in the Senate and the bill stalls, senators run the risk of being blamed for stalling a measure that authorizes service-member pay raises and other military compensation.
A new bipartisan sanctions bill is expected to be unveiled imminently, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. And at least one defense hawk involved, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has suggested he would need a guarantee that Iran sanctions will receive a vote, in order to move forward with the annual defense authorization that enjoys broad support and a 51-year running streak.
"My decision about the defense bill will be linked to whether or not we get a guarantee to vote on the Iranian sanctions," Graham told reporters Wednesday, saying a lack of assurance on sanctions would lead him to vote against the bill. "I need a guaranteed vehicle to get this done."
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of GOP leadership who is pushing sanctions, said he is not sure what the strategy will be. "We need to do the Iran sanctions bill and we need to do it sooner than later," he said. "I don't know how. Everything is up in the air."
Without a clear path to bring Iran sanctions forward, some Republicans are hanging their hats on promises Reid has made to address the issue and say they are confident they have momentum on their side.
"My understanding is that Senator Reid has promised the chief sponsors an opportunity" to bring up the bill, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "The sooner the better to send the message to the administration about the importance of this next six months."
Sen. John McCain is making similar noise. "The majority leader has said in the past he will 'Rule 14' it, which means bring the bill directly to the floor of the Senate. I hope he sticks to that commitment."
Democrats were circumspect about their plans after leaving a classified briefing with Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew Wednesday. But in an interview the night before, Menendez said he was pretty confident he knew what Kerry had to say and was still moving forward on bipartisan legislation. The exact path, however, "hasn't been determined," Menendez said.
"There are a couple of options obviously, as every legislation on sanctions has always been an amendment, most particularly to NDAA. That's not going to be likely here," he said. "But it could be an amendment to something else that must pass and/or we might get a procedural process that would let us come to the floor directly if the [Banking] Committee doesn't want to act."
This article appears in the December 12, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.