On Iran, Menendez Offers Obama an Olive Branch—and a Warning

Key Democrats say they will give the administration more time to negotiate. But their patience is limited.

National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Jan. 27, 2015, 7:17 a.m.

A week ago, Sen. Robert Men­en­dez com­pared the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s talk­ing points on Ir­an to those com­ing “straight out of Tehran.” On Tues­day, he sent an olive branch to the White House, agree­ing in a let­ter to post­pone fur­ther sanc­tions over the coun­try’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram un­til late March.

The dra­mat­ic re­versal by the top Demo­crat on the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee was both a ma­jor con­ces­sion to the White House, which has threatened to veto the sanc­tions bill — buy­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion more time to pur­sue ne­go­ti­ations with Tehran — and a warn­ing. The real mes­sage of the let­ter from Men­en­dez was not just in its con­tent, but in the 10 sig­na­tures at the bot­tom of the page.

Those sig­nat­or­ies — all fel­low Demo­crats — rep­res­ent ex­tra votes to pass the sanc­tions bill this spring and nearly enough ayes, com­bined with all of the cham­ber’s Re­pub­lic­ans, to over­ride a pres­id­en­tial veto, should a show­down come. Men­en­dez told re­port­ers Tues­day that in ad­di­tion to those 10 Demo­crats, there were “oth­ers who ex­pressed their strong in­terest” in the is­sue.

Even as they offered the ad­min­is­tra­tion more time for ne­go­ti­ations, pro-sanc­tions Demo­crats made a show of force. Im­pli­cit in the let­ter is that they will move for­ward when, as they ex­pect, the ne­go­ti­ations fail and it’s un­likely that Pres­id­ent Obama will be able to do any­thing about it. The mes­sage: Try us.

The let­ter, which Men­en­dez made pub­lic dur­ing a hear­ing of the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee on Tues­day, is just the latest epis­ode in an on­go­ing game of chick­en between the White House and the New Jer­sey Demo­crat, whose com­mit­tee role should make him the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de facto top ally on for­eign af­fairs in Con­gress, over Ir­an.

Dur­ing a ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion at the Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic re­treat in Bal­timore two weeks ago, Men­en­dez and Obama got in­to a tense verbal al­ter­ca­tion over the sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion. Dur­ing the ex­change, Obama urged sen­at­ors to drop their push for sanc­tions, warn­ing that if they scuttled ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an, the U.S. would be blamed.

Des­pite those warn­ings, Men­en­dez said dur­ing Tues­day’s Bank­ing Com­mit­tee hear­ing that “un­til now, Ir­an has not been mo­tiv­ated” to come to a deal with the United States and oth­er in­ter­na­tion­al ne­go­ti­at­ors over its nuc­le­ar pro­gram. “In my view,” he said, “a strong bi­par­tis­an bill that out­lines the con­sequences of fail­ure could be the mo­tiv­at­or that Ir­a­ni­an lead­ers need to make the hard de­cisions.”

Men­en­dez said he had not been lob­bied by the White House to delay the sanc­tions bill, which he coau­thored with Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, since his con­front­a­tion with the pres­id­ent in Bal­timore. “I don’t get calls [from the White House on Ir­an],” he said while get­ting in­to an el­ev­at­or on Tues­day.

But Men­en­dez said in a sub­sequent in­ter­view that he felt the White House had “made a very open, pub­lic case” for delay­ing the sanc­tions bill un­til after the March 24 dead­line for ne­go­ti­at­ors to come up with a frame­work for a deal with Ir­an, one that he ul­ti­mately found com­pel­ling. Ad­di­tion­ally, the delay would en­sure that there will not be “any ex­cuses for an agree­ment not be­ing made,” he said.

“And if they can’t, then [the let­ter] made it very clear to the ad­min­is­tra­tion that it is our in­ten­tion to move for­ward at that time,” he told re­port­ers.

“It strikes me that this is a pretty good day for those who sup­port the [sanc­tions bill],” Josh Block, the CEO and pres­id­ent of The Is­rael Pro­ject, said in an in­ter­view. The let­ter is a “cre­at­ive way” to sig­nal to the White House that sup­port for sanc­tions goes bey­ond the Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence and is gain­ing trac­tion among con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats.

Those lis­ted in sup­port range from Men­en­dez to Blue-Dog Sen. Joe Manchin and the Sen­ate’s No. 3 Demo­crat, Chuck Schu­mer. The oth­er sig­nat­or­ies are Richard Blu­menth­al of Con­necti­c­ut, Ben Cardin of Mary­land, Robert Ca­sey of Pennsylvania, Chris­toph­er Coons of Delaware, Joe Don­nelly of In­di­ana, and both Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Men­en­dez’s con­ces­sion to the White House on the sanc­tions timeline comes just a week after House Speak­er John Boehner in­vited Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu to speak be­fore a joint ses­sion of Con­gress without con­sult­ing with the ad­min­is­tra­tion. A Men­en­dez aide said that his de­cision to delay the timeline for the sanc­tions bill had noth­ing to do with Net­an­yahu’s vis­it.

But the move, an­nounced just a day after Obama vowed in his State of the Uni­on Ad­dress to veto any new Ir­an sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion, in­furi­ated the White House and many con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats, some of whom told The At­lantic‘s Jef­frey Gold­berg that they felt hu­mi­li­ated and angered by Net­an­yahu’s ploy to ad­dress Con­gress “be­hind the pres­id­ent’s back.”

Des­pite pub­lic fights over Cuba and Ir­an policy, Men­en­dez de­scribed his re­la­tion­ship with the White House as “ex­cel­lent” on Tues­day.

“Look, you know my friends in the press like to fo­cus on dis­agree­ments, but if you were to look at the over­whelm­ing uni­verse of votes and sup­port for pres­id­en­tial policies, you would find over­whelm­ingly that I sup­port the pres­id­ent,” Men­en­dez said in an in­ter­view last week. “Where I have a policy dis­agree­ment, I will stand on my views.”¦ That’s the way it’s al­ways been for me.”

James Oliphant contributed to this article.
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