Iran Bill Could Prompt Obama’s First Veto Override

Pro-sanctions Democrats could team with the GOP to overcome White House opposition.

US President Barack Obama clasps hands with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (2nd R), D-NV, while meeting with members of Congress on foreign policy on July 31, 2014 in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC. From left: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-NJ, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker, R-TN. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Jan. 20, 2015, 3 p.m.

A po­ten­tial show­down is loom­ing between Sen­ate Demo­crats and the White House over Ir­an, one that could lead to the first suc­cess­ful veto over­ride of Pres­id­ent Obama’s ten­ure.

On one side are Hill Demo­crats who—along with Re­pub­lic­ans—want to weigh in on Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram. On the oth­er is the White House, which has said that any state­ment from Con­gress would jeop­ard­ize a long-term deal to dis­mantle the coun­try’s nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­it­ies. Obama has vowed to veto any le­gis­la­tion that im­poses sanc­tions, ur­ging Con­gress to “hold your fire” while talks con­tin­ue.

Twelve Demo­crats in the Sen­ate have in the past co­sponsored le­gis­la­tion to im­pose sanc­tions on Ir­an. If they all con­tin­ue to call for the sanc­tions, it would put the Sen­ate close to the two-thirds ma­jor­ity ne­ces­sary to over­ride Obama’s veto; sup­port­ers would need just one more vote if all 54 Re­pub­lic­ans sup­port the bill.

Obama has ve­toed only two bills in six years, and neither was over­rid­den. More ve­toes are likely on tap now that Re­pub­lic­ans con­trol both cham­bers of Con­gress—on is­sues ran­ging from the Key­stone XL pipeline to Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions on im­mig­ra­tion—but no cur­rent is­sue oth­er than Ir­an seems as likely to at­tract the num­ber of Demo­crats ne­ces­sary for an over­ride.

Demo­crats who fa­vor more sanc­tions on Ir­an say they need hard de­tails from the ad­min­is­tra­tion about the pro­gress it has made in two years of talks. How many re­act­ors are still func­tion­ing? How much urani­um do the Ir­a­ni­ans have?

“Are they al­low­ing full ac­cess? Just someone give me an up­date. Help us make a de­cision on the bill,” said Demo­crat­ic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia, who has sup­por­ted sanc­tions in the past but is un­de­cided on how he will vote when the Sen­ate takes up a sanc­tions bill later this month.

Demo­crats aren’t yet will­ing to dis­cuss buck­ing Obama in such a pub­lic fash­ion, ac­cord­ing to aides, but the pos­sib­il­ity is cer­tainly there. It’s dif­fi­cult for any law­maker to vote against a pun­ish­ment for Ir­an, and those who are frus­trated with how the talks are go­ing could egg every­one else on.

“I think there are some who are more anxious, want to cre­ate some in­cent­ive for the Ir­a­ni­ans to do the right thing, put­ting pres­sure on them pro­spect­ively,” said Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. “Oth­ers, like my­self, feel like this is once-in-a-polit­ic­al-life­time op­por­tun­ity. I just don’t want to jeop­ard­ize ne­go­ti­ations.”

Asked if a siz­able num­ber of Demo­crats would vote against Obama’s wishes on the is­sue, Durbin would only say, “The op­er­at­ive word there is ‘siz­able.’”

Sen. Robert Men­en­dez of New Jer­sey is lead­ing the charge among Demo­crats who want Ir­an sanc­tions. He will get the chance Wed­nes­day to lay out his ar­gu­ment for im­pos­ing sanc­tions if the talks with Ir­an fail. As the top Demo­crat on the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, Men­en­dez will have his best op­por­tun­ity yet to air his con­cerns that the talks have dragged on for too long (since 2013) with the United States hav­ing little to show for it.

The For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee will re­ceive a form­al up­date Wed­nes­day from State and Treas­ury De­part­ment of­fi­cials at a hear­ing on the Ir­an nuc­le­ar talks. Later in the day, the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee will have a clas­si­fied brief­ing on the same top­ic, ac­cord­ing to Chair­man Richard Shelby of Alabama.

Any Ir­an-sanc­tions bill must ul­ti­mately go through the Bank­ing Com­mit­tee, but the For­eign Re­la­tions pan­el of­fers the first peek at the in­tens­ity of the con­flict between Demo­crats who fa­vor sanc­tions and the White House. Men­en­dez, with Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, is pro­pos­ing new sanc­tions that would not take ef­fect un­til Ju­ly, a dead­line that the United States, Ir­an, and sev­er­al European coun­tries have already agreed to for reach­ing a deal.

Men­en­dez is tak­ing a non­con­front­a­tion­al tone, ac­cord­ing to an aide, not­ing that his le­gis­la­tion would al­low Obama to delay the sanc­tions if he thinks they are close to a deal. He wants the sanc­tions to be “pro­spect­ive,” mean­ing a back­stop for the United States if Ir­an walks away be­fore the dead­line. Noth­ing hap­pens un­til then.

Men­en­dez is a feisty sen­at­or, un­afraid to dress down people who don’t of­fer com­pel­ling ar­gu­ments or can’t back up their re­quests with facts. He clashed with Obama at the Demo­crats’ re­treat last week over Ir­an. But if he wants to win over enough Demo­crats to send a mes­sage to Obama that the Con­gress should play an act­ive role in the ne­go­ti­ations, he needs to make sure every­one knows that his sanc­tions bill is re­spect­ful of the White House’s ne­go­ti­at­ing po­s­i­tion. At the same time, the glob­al situ­ation is chan­ging with a vari­ety of bold ac­tions from Ir­an, in­clud­ing the re­cent de­ten­tion of a Wash­ing­ton Post re­port­er, that could war­rant a state­ment from Con­gress.

The next step for the le­gis­la­tion will be the Bank­ing Com­mit­tee, which is ex­pec­ted to vote on it next week. GOP aides ex­pect the bill to be on the Sen­ate floor after the com­ple­tion of the Key­stone XL pipeline de­bate, which is likely to con­tin­ue through the month.

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