Iran Sanctions Have Majority Support. So Where’s the Pressure?

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 02: U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) waits to greet a veteran group from Chicago at the World War II Memorial October 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. Congressional members opened up the barricades of the memorial again and welcomed veteran groups to visit, most of them came on Honor Flights from around the country, on the second day of the government shutdown.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
Jan. 13, 2014, 5:23 p.m.

In a cham­ber of­ten known for its dis­agree­ments, le­gis­la­tion to sanc­tion Ir­an en­joys an al­most fili­buster-proof ma­jor­ity. Yet Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship in the Sen­ate isn’t feel­ing pres­sure to put the bill to a vote — at least not yet.

That could change next week, when the six-month in­ter­im nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an of­fi­cially kicks off, with a ramped-up de­bate on sanc­tions al­most cer­tain to fol­low.

The situ­ation puts Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id in a pre­cari­ous situ­ation, caught between the White House, which op­poses al­low­ing a vote on a sanc­tions bill, and a grow­ing list of sen­at­ors who have signed on to the le­gis­la­tion.

“We need to pro­ceed in a very de­lib­er­ate man­ner,” said Sen. Richard Blu­menth­al, a Con­necti­c­ut Demo­crat who co­sponsored the bill, “and be sure we are sup­port­ing the pres­id­ent — and I do strongly sup­port the pres­id­ent — in ef­forts to reach a suc­cess­ful res­ult in the ne­go­ti­ations.”

The bill, which would im­pose new sanc­tions on Ir­an if no com­pre­hens­ive nuc­le­ar agree­ment is reached, is led by Sens. Robert Men­en­dez, a New Jer­sey Demo­crat, and Mark Kirk, an Illinois Re­pub­lic­an. It has a total of 59 co­spon­sors, in­clud­ing 16 Demo­crats and all Re­pub­lic­ans ex­cept Sens. Rand Paul and Jeff Flake. Only 60 are needed to break a fili­buster.

Moreover, Kirk says he ex­pects ad­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an sup­port in com­ing weeks, and that there are ac­tu­ally closer to 70 votes in the Sen­ate — enough to over­ride a veto.

Re­id placed the bill on the le­gis­lat­ive cal­en­dar back in Decem­ber and pro­ponents ex­pect it to come up again, per­haps the first week of Feb­ru­ary, ac­cord­ing to a Sen­ate aide fa­mil­i­ar with the le­gis­la­tion.

Yet Kirk says that if the bill is pushed in­to next month, “the Amer­ic­an people will have com­mit­ted a griev­ous for­eign policy er­ror sim­il­ar to Neville Cham­ber­lain giv­ing away Czechoslov­akia at the be­gin­ning of World War II. The path of ap­pease­ment al­ways leads dir­ectly to war. If you give bil­lions of dol­lars to the Ir­a­ni­ans, you are lead­ing dir­ectly to con­flict.”

The pres­sure to bring up the le­gis­la­tion be­lies the fact that it already has sig­ni­fic­ant sup­port, and the White House is partly the cause.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has lob­bied law­makers against passing ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions to al­low ne­go­ti­at­ors to craft a long-term deal with Ir­an, ar­guing that the threat of sanc­tions could com­plic­ate or de­rail that pro­cess. “Im­pos­ing ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions now will only risk de­rail­ing our ef­forts to re­solve this is­sue peace­fully,” Pres­id­ent Obama said in a state­ment Sunday, “and I will veto any le­gis­la­tion en­act­ing new sanc­tions dur­ing the ne­go­ti­ation.”

Seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials briefed seni­or Cap­it­ol Hill staff Monday, and the full Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic Caucus will con­vene at the White House on Wed­nes­day, where the is­sue will likely come up. Ten Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic com­mit­tee chairs wrote a let­ter last month ur­ging Re­id to hold back on vot­ing on sanc­tions.

Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in, D-Mich., who op­poses new sanc­tions dur­ing the six-month win­dow, says news of the deal im­ple­ment­a­tion “should make it harder for people to be will­ing to act in a way that may un­der­mine the chances or re­duce the chances of a com­pre­hens­ive agree­ment.”

“A vote for ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions in the middle of ne­go­ti­ations plays in­to the hands of the ex­trem­ist ele­ments in Ir­an,” he ad­ded.

Last week, the White House sug­ges­ted sanc­tions sup­port­ers ac­tu­ally wanted mil­it­ary ac­tion. “They should re­gret us­ing that lan­guage. The bad act­or here is Ir­an,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Mary­land Demo­crat and co­spon­sor of the sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion.

Cardin and oth­er Demo­crat­ic sup­port­ers say there is no day­light between their ob­ject­ives and that of the ad­min­is­tra­tion: to stop a nuc­le­ar-armed Ir­an through dip­lomacy. They in­sist sanc­tions are what has brought the Ir­a­ni­ans to the table, and ad­di­tion­al ones are needed to push ef­forts across the fin­ish line.

While there could po­ten­tially be a veto-proof ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate, it’s un­clear wheth­er Demo­crats sup­port­ive of sanc­tions would ac­tu­ally buck the White House to over­turn a veto.

“I don’t think we’ll need to cross that bridge,” Blu­menth­al said.

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