Senate Iran hawks have lots of votes to back their sanctions legislation. What they lack is a plan to get the bill to the floor.
Fifty-nine senators—including 16 Democrats—have signed onto sanctions legislation from Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk. The measure would punish Iran with sanctions if it reneges on an interim nuclear agreement or if that agreement does not ultimately abolish any nuclear-weapons capabilities for Iran.
That count has climbed rapidly since the bipartisan pair introduced their legislation in late December. But now it's unclear whether that support will be enough to clear the bill's next major hurdle: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Reid is siding with the White House, which has put intense pressure on lawmakers not to act on sanctions, arguing it could result in both a nuclear-armed and hostile Iranian state. And without Reid's backing, supporters of the Menendez-Kirk bill are unsure how to move the measure to the floor.
"I assume that if the Democrat senators put enough pressure on Senator Reid he might bring it to the floor," said Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt. "But, you know, we are at a moment in the Senate where nothing happens that Senator Reid doesn't want to happen; and this is something at this moment that Senator Reid doesn't want to happen."
And for now, sanctions supporters are still mulling their strategy.
"We are talking amongst ourselves. There is a very active debate and discussion ongoing about how best to move forward," said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a cosponsor of the bill. "There are a number of alternative strategies, but we're deliberating them."
While Reid has, at least for now, foiled their policy plans, sanctions supporters are still scoring the desired political points on the issue. They can report their efforts to their constituents while blaming Reid for the inaction.
But whatever pressure Reid is getting from his colleagues, he's also getting support from the commander in chief.
In a White House meeting Wednesday night, President Obama made a hard sell to Democrats on the issue, pleading with them to back off sanctions while his team worked on a nuclear pact.
"The president did speak passionately about how [we] must seize this opportunity, that we need to seize this six months … and that if Iran isn't willing to in the end make the decisions necessary to make it work, he'll be ready to sign a bill to tighten those sanctions—but we gotta give this six months," said Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, after returning from the White House.
In the meantime, many bill supporters reason that Reid will eventually feel the heat.
"We'll just have to ratchet up the pressure, that's all," said Republican Sen. John McCain. "The president is pushing back, obviously, and he's appealing to the loyalty of Democrats, but there are a lot of other forces out there that are pushing in the other direction, so we'll see how they react."
Earlier this week Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he was hoping to find more Democratic cosponsors over the recess and was talking to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor about whether the Republican-controlled House might take up the Senate sanctions bill as a way to spur the Senate to act. But neither of Graham's approaches represents a broad, coordinated campaign.
Democrats, who have more power to drive the train in the Senate, seem to be in little hurry.
"I don't think there is any time schedule related to it at this point," said Democratic cosponsor Ben Cardin of Maryland. "We are all trying to figure out how we can be most helpful and make sure Iran does not become a nuclear-weapon state."
Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is the lead Democratic sponsor, said he is focused on hearing more from the administration about the reported unofficial secret "side deal" with Tehran.
About the plans to proceed, Menendez said noncommittally, "We'll see."
Kirk, the Illinois Republican who is the other lead sponsor, said he was counting on elections pressure to spark action.
"My hope is that, as we get towards midterm elections, members are going to want to be on record being against giving up billions of dollars to Iran," Kirk said.
Other members are hoping lobbying groups can carry the weight on this one. McCain said he hoped pro-Israel groups could convince Democrats to spring into action or that supporters could make it uncomfortable for Reid to continue blocking the bill.
"We'll see what happens—whether the pressure builds, how active some of these constituencies are, particularly in states with large pro-Israel populations," McCain said. "And we may just start bringing it up and saying, 'We ask unanimous consent that we bring it up,' and make Senator Reid object."
Michael Catalini contributed to this article.
This article appears in the January 17, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.