Iran Hawks Flounder Against Reid-Obama Coalition

US President Barack Obama(R) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, arrive for a meeting with the Senate Democratic Caucus on July 31, 2013 in the US Capitol in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Jan. 16, 2014, 3:23 p.m.

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 Catalin contributed to this article.
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