Harry Reid is in the hot seat on the question of whether to allow a vote on Iran sanctions legislation, and it will only get hotter when the Senate returns from recess next week.
The administration is unleashing a full-court press to sell its interim nuclear deal with Iran, and it has been waging a campaign for months to convince Congress to hold off on any additional sanctions action. But several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who strongly support Israel insist that it was the pressure of sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table on its nuclear-weapons capabilities. They argue the threat of additional sanctions now is necessary to hold Iran's feet to the fire.
This all puts Reid in an incredibly tough bind.
The Senate majority leader has so far blocked any vote on additional Iran sanctions from coming to the floor. Despite comments that he madebefore the interim agreement was announced that the Senate needs to leave "legislative … options open to act on a new bipartisan sanctions bill in December," he has since hedged, saying the Senate will act "appropriately" and that "if we need stronger sanctions, I am sure we will do that."
Senior Republican Senate aides say they don't see signs of Reid capitulating.
Many on and off Capitol Hill monitoring the situation closely say they have a hard time imagining Reid would call for a vote on Iran sanctions legislation any time soon.
"I believe Senator Reid will try to give the administration the time it needs to sell this deal a little bit more on the Hill," former Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "His job as leader is to protect the administration's priorities."
Danielle Pletka, a vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Reid might find the pressure from the White House overwhelming.
"I believe that Reid's caucus will want a vote, but Reid may well refuse in order to protect the president's desire to have a free hand to warm up with Iran," she said.
But it is also unclear how long Reid can resist pressure from his colleagues.
The administration's track record on being able to suppress Congress when it comes to sanctions is not great. The House passed additional Iran sanctions in July.
Several senators were pushing additional sanctions legislation before the interim agreement with Iran was announced and remain engaged now. Leading the charge are Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
While Republicans are leading the charge, there is plenty of pressure from prominent Democrats like Menendez, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate's No.3 Democrat.
Senators on both sides of the aisle working on revised sanctions legislation are aiming to hold Iran accountable in case it violates the agreement after the six-month negotiating window has shut.
"What Congress would potentially be saying with these sanctions is you can have six months to try to get this comprehensive deal but no more," said Matthew Kroenig, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. "The idea of doing that would be to put a little bit of pressure on the administration to actually negotiate this comprehensive deal in the next six months, because one of the fears is that this interim deal will be extended indefinitely."
A potential out for Reid that is being floated in some circles could be a compromise of sorts that sends a strong message to Iran—like a nonbinding resolution expressing concerns about Iran short of actual sanctions—but that the administration can tolerate in order to get the issue behind it.
"The sense is that they need to vote on something.… The administration is starting to prepare for having to explain this," said a think tank analyst close to the issue. "The question is, are they going to be able to vote on something that meets the administration's definition of harmless? Some kind of nonbinding resolution on Iran that is very harsh?"
The idea that such a compromise would satisfy those members seeking sanctions looks to be a long shot.
One Senate aide was quick to douse such a plan. "If the whole idea is to preserve whatever kind of atmospherics, I don't think a soft nonbinding resolution would achieve that."
Pressure from the administration not to act is expected to ratchet up in the coming days. The president and Secretary of State John Kerry will discuss U.S.-Israeli relations and ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran this weekend at the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum. Kerry will further espouse the administration's message before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday and is expected to brief lawmakers soon on the state of play in negotiations with Iran.
Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, briefed House members Wednesday on the agreement with Iran but continued to face serious skepticism from lawmakers who do not trust Iran. She comes before the Senate Banking Committee for a hearing on the agreement with David Cohen, the Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, on Thursday.
This article appears in the December 6, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.