At Odds With Israel, Senate Dems Look to Obama for Help

The lawmakers backed the president when he asked them to hold off on Iran sanctions. Now they’re looking to him for cover.

Senator Chris Murphy (R) gives a speech during a mass rally of the opposition Independence Square in Kiev on December 15, 2013.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
Jan. 26, 2014, 10:05 a.m.

Sen. Chris Murphy just stuck his neck way, way out for Pres­id­ent Obama. Now he needs some help.

Murphy is among the Demo­crats who heeded Obama’s plea to not push new Ir­an sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion dur­ing in­ter­na­tion­al ne­go­ti­ations over the coun­try’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram. The pres­id­ent says the push could dis­rupt the talks, ul­ti­mately mak­ing the re­gion — and the United States — less safe.

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu, however, says the con­cili­at­ory ap­proach is put­ting his coun­try in per­il.

And that makes life dif­fi­cult for Murphy, a first-term Demo­crat from Con­necti­c­ut, a state with a siz­able Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. It’s also home to out­go­ing Amer­ic­an Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Pres­id­ent Mi­chael Kassen, and the state’s seni­or sen­at­or, Demo­crat Richard Blu­menth­al, is one of the core ad­voc­ates of get-tough sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion.

“Most Sen­ate Demo­crats know that this is lit­er­ally a life and death situ­ation for people in Ir­an, Is­rael, and across the re­gion and that the right way to go about this is the path the pres­id­ent has sug­ges­ted,” opined one Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide. “But you could lose an elec­tion on this is­sue.”

Murphy’s not up this year, but he is hop­ing for some help from the pres­id­ent dur­ing Tues­day night’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress. If Obama can lay out a con­vin­cing case for hold­ing off on sanc­tions, suc­cess­fully re­cast­ing the po­s­i­tion from “soft-on-Ir­an” to “smart-on-in­ter­na­tion­al-se­cur­ity,” it will help Murphy bring his con­stitu­ents along as well.

“I cer­tainly agree with the pres­id­ent that we should hold off on a new round of Ir­an sanc­tions, so I am hope­ful that he will make the case as to why that is so im­port­ant,” Murphy told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Mean­while, Murphy is mak­ing a con­cer­ted, even risky, ef­fort to make his own case as well. He held a for­um in Green­wich on Wed­nes­day with con­stitu­ents on both sides of the sanc­tions is­sue, and he got a taste of how high ten­sions run on the is­sue.

One at­tendee, who said he was a Holo­caust sur­viv­or, “subtly com­pared” the Ir­a­ni­an pres­id­ent with Hitler and ac­cused the U.S. of try­ing to “make a deal with the dev­il,” ac­cord­ing to the The Ad­voc­ate of Stam­ford.

Murphy says his Sen­ate col­leagues were curi­ous why he would vol­un­tar­ily con­front such a con­ten­tious is­sue in a pub­lic for­um. But he said he found it to be an ef­fect­ive tool dur­ing the health care de­bate in 2009 where he went so “over­board” on town halls he would “talk to people un­til I wore out the op­pos­i­tion.”

And Murphy says he re­mains stead­fast in stand­ing with Obama on Ir­an.

“My po­s­i­tion is the lo­gic­al ex­ten­sion of the bi­par­tis­an sanc­tions policy of the last five years,” Murphy said. “I thought that the whole reas­on we were ap­ply­ing tough sanc­tions was so that we could get Ir­an to the ne­go­ti­at­ing table. To me, hold­ing off on a new round sanc­tions un­til the ne­go­ti­ations are over is com­mon sense.”

Murphy ar­gued that law­makers are in broad agree­ment: If Ir­an walks away ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions will be ap­plied. The dif­fer­ence, he says, is over strategy, not policy — wheth­er it’s more prudent to pass le­gis­la­tion now or in the event ne­go­ti­ations fall apart.

Murphy said he’s not Pol­ly­an­naish and be­lieves odds of a deal are less than 50-50.

His bot­tom line is that there must be a sig­ni­fic­ant ex­pan­sion of the time it would take Ir­an to en­rich fuel for a nuc­le­ar bomb, a dra­mat­ic hasten­ing of de­tec­tion time through in­trus­ive in­spec­tions, and no al­low­ance for heavy-wa­ter re­act­or cap­ab­il­it­ies. He said there must be a sig­ni­fic­ant de­crease in Ir­an’s num­ber of cent­ri­fuges, but he is will­ing to en­ter­tain lim­ited en­rich­ment un­der cer­tain con­di­tions.

“As Pres­id­ent Obama has said, this is not a mat­ter of get­ting a deal at any cost, we are only go­ing to agree to something that makes the re­gion and the world safer. We are not go­ing to get a deal for a deal’s sake.”

Re­gard­less of what Obama says Tues­day, his Ir­an policy will still have vo­cal crit­ics — and so will the Demo­crats who back it.

“I’m not con­vinced that any­thing in the State of the Uni­on is go­ing to give them the top cov­er they think they need,” said Dani­elle Pletka, a vice pres­id­ent of for­eign and de­fense policy stud­ies with the con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute.

Un­der the in­ter­im agree­ment, Ir­an is get­ting a break from eco­nom­ic sanc­tions and in ex­change is halt­ing the growth of its nuc­le­ar pro­gram, al­low­ing Ir­an, the U.S., and oth­er world powers six months to reach a fi­nal agree­ment on its nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­it­ies.

Obama says the deal could end Ir­an’s quest for a nuc­le­ar weapon, but Pletka and oth­er crit­ics com­plain that the deal gives Ir­an too much and asks for too little.

“The more that people real­ize how little there is to the deal the more dif­fi­cult it’s go­ing to be for the ad­min­is­tra­tion,” she said. “So it’s go­ing to be up to the seni­or Demo­crats in the Sen­ate as to wheth­er they want to send Ir­an a clear mes­sage about Amer­ic­an policy or wheth­er they want to have the same wishy-washy mes­sage that the pres­id­ent has.”

The House passed a sanc­tions bill last sum­mer be­fore the cur­rent ne­go­ti­ations were an­nounced and could fol­low up with a res­ol­u­tion dic­tat­ing the terms of a fi­nal agree­ment with Ir­an, or even take up the con­tro­ver­sial pending Sen­ate sanc­tions bill.

But al­though Murphy is in a con­ten­tious po­s­i­tion, he’s not in it alone. And those who have joined him out on Obama’s for­eign policy limb are hop­ing the pres­id­ent will use the bully pul­pit Tues­day night to make the case for wait­ing.

In­de­pend­ent Sen. An­gus King of Maine and Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat Tim Kaine, both of whom op­pose ad­di­tion­al Ir­an sanc­tions, said they’re hop­ing the pres­id­ent will be as per­suas­ive pub­licly as he was privately dur­ing a closed-door White House meet­ing with Demo­crats on Ir­an last week.

King said Obama’s mes­sage there was “in­cred­ibly power­ful,” and while he said he was not sure what Obama would say in his ad­dress, he did have dire pre­dic­tions for what will hap­pen if Con­gress bucks its com­mand­er in chief.

“If Con­gress moves for­ward on sanc­tions, there’s a sig­ni­fic­ant like­li­hood that the Ir­a­ni­ans will walk from the ne­go­ti­ations and that our in­ter­na­tion­al co­ali­tion that has made the sanc­tions so ef­fect­ive will break apart,” he said. “Both bad res­ults and I see very little up­side.”

Kaine is also push­ing pa­tience in Con­gress, and hop­ing Obama will do the same.

“We need to give dip­lomacy a chance,” Kaine said. “By the State of the Uni­on, you will be a week after the Jan. 20 start date of the six-month peri­od with Ir­an and the [In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency] will have laid out kind of a baseline re­port of what the cur­rent status is in Ir­an.”

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