Senate Dems Defy Obama on Iran

Despite the president’s pleas, key Democrats to side with GOP on sanctions bill.

US Senator Robert Menendez, D-NJ, speaks as he introduces Defense Department general counsel Jeh Johnson to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for Johnson's nomination to be Homeland Security secretary in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on November 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Dec. 18, 2013, 3:43 p.m.

A bi­par­tis­an group of sen­at­ors will soon in­tro­duce le­gis­la­tion that would level new sanc­tions against Ir­an, de­fy­ing pleas from Pres­id­ent Obama for Con­gress to wait while the ad­min­is­tra­tion works to­ward a com­pre­hens­ive deal.

Law­makers are cir­cu­lat­ing le­gis­la­tion to im­pose ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions that would kick in after the six-month ne­go­ti­at­ing win­dow to reach a com­pre­hens­ive deal on Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram runs out, or if Ir­an fails to hold up its end of the bar­gain in the in­ter­im.

The ex­act tim­ing of the le­gis­la­tion’s in­tro­duc­tion will be largely up to Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., who is lead­ing the bi­par­tis­an sanc­tions ef­fort with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

Law­makers and staff in­volved in the ne­go­ti­ations, however, say the bill could be ready as soon as Thursday.

“I am work­ing with a series of mem­bers, and I ex­pect we’ll have some type of an an­nounce­ment to­mor­row,” Men­en­dez said Wed­nes­day. “The dy­nam­ics are what I’ve al­ways said they would be, which is to give the pres­id­ent the space and time so that he can test the Ir­a­ni­ans’ ser­i­ous­ness of pur­pose in terms of wheth­er they are will­ing to strike an agree­ment, but to be ready should they ul­ti­mately fail.”

In­tro­du­cing the bill be­fore the break — and thus tee­ing it up for ac­tion when the Sen­ate re­con­venes in Janu­ary — would sig­nal a bold act of de­fi­ance against the ad­min­is­tra­tion, which was still beg­ging law­makers this week to sit back and wait to see wheth­er a com­pre­hens­ive agree­ment can be reached.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion said that even the in­tro­duc­tion of the bill threatened to un­der­mine the in­ter­na­tion­al ne­go­ti­ations, and last week it ap­peared that the White House’s ag­gress­ive lob­by­ing cam­paign was mak­ing in­roads in delay­ing le­gis­la­tion.

But sources close to the dis­cus­sions ar­gue that Ir­an’s tem­por­ary break-off in ne­go­ti­ations with world powers in Vi­enna last week has re­in­forced law­makers’ doubts about Ir­an’s com­mit­ment.

“If a bill is in­tro­duced, the sig­ni­fic­ance would be that it would es­sen­tially be a vote of no con­fid­ence in this deal, and that would be very dam­aging,” said Mat­thew Duss, a policy ana­lyst with the lib­er­al Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress. “If a bill is not in­tro­duced, the sig­ni­fic­ance would be that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been suc­cess­ful in hold­ing off a chal­lenge to the deal.”

Sen. Richard Blu­menth­al, D-Conn., who is part of the talks, said Wed­nes­day that he is com­mit­ted to push­ing for­ward on a sanc­tions bill to keep pres­sure on Ir­an and would like to see a bill with strong, clear lan­guage and the broad­est pos­sible bi­par­tis­an co­ali­tion in­tro­duced as soon as pos­sible.

“The agree­ment with Ir­an is a very pre­lim­in­ary first step, and that con­tin­ued pres­sure is im­port­ant through the pos­sib­il­ity of in­creased sanc­tions, if this first step fails to lead to a more per­man­ent last­ing agree­ment,” he said. “I am go­ing to con­tin­ue to pur­sue po­ten­tial sanc­tions with a num­ber of col­leagues who share the same goal. … Sanc­tions is what brought the Ir­a­ni­ans to the table, and they should be un­der no il­lu­sions that they will be dis­sip­ated or di­min­ished if this agree­ment ef­fort fails.”

Sen­ate aides and mem­bers in­volved say that top ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials — in­clud­ing Wendy Sher­man, the un­der­sec­ret­ary of State for polit­ic­al af­fairs, and Denis Mc­Donough, the White House chief of staff, who has a back­ground in these is­sues as a former aide to the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee — have been reach­ing out to law­makers privately, ur­ging them not to even in­tro­duce sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion, much less move it through Con­gress.

“They are put­ting on the most in­tense pres­sure,” said John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., who is work­ing on the le­gis­la­tion and said he ex­pects the bill will be in­tro­duced be­fore the Sen­ate ad­journs. “It is very sig­ni­fic­ant that it would be in­tro­duced, and I think there would be sig­ni­fic­ant pres­sures from both sides of the aisle to have it pass so that six months from now — if there is fail­ure to ne­go­ti­ate — it kicks in.”

Blu­menth­al would not dis­cuss spe­cif­ic con­ver­sa­tions with the ad­min­is­tra­tion, but he ac­know­ledged that his phone has been ringing off the hook.

“I have been re­ceiv­ing a lot of calls,” he said. “We are listen­ing to the ad­min­is­tra­tion and cer­tainly heed­ing their points, but we have a sep­ar­ate and in­de­pend­ent re­spons­ib­il­ity.”

Blu­menth­al ad­ded that law­makers’ goal is not to im­pede dip­lo­mat­ic ef­forts but to strengthen them, and that law­makers need to keep up pres­sure for a vote on sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion.

“A bill is a pro­foundly sig­ni­fic­ant step, but it still has to be fol­lowed by oth­er steps like passing the bill or not, be­cause ul­ti­mately, … the en­dgame has to be a non-nuc­le­ar-armed Ir­an. That is the goal, very simply. Every­one shares the same goal here, and that’s the win,” he said.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., took to the floor Wed­nes­day, de­cry­ing Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., for block­ing de­bate on Ir­an sanc­tions, and push­ing to bring the is­sue for­ward.

“The Sen­ate should not be denied a vote con­cern­ing Ir­an,” Mc­Con­nell said. “The pres­id­ent re­tains the power to veto any­thing we might pass.”

Led by Men­en­dez and Kirk, 14 sen­at­ors is­sued a state­ment last month com­mit­ting to work to­geth­er to pass a bi­par­tis­an sanc­tions bill in the com­ing weeks, and mem­bers in­volved in the dis­cus­sions and their staffs say the goal is to have an even broad­er bi­par­tis­an co­ali­tion as­sembled to build mo­mentum for sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion.

That could in­clude mem­bers like Sen. Mark Be­gich, D-Alaska, who was not one of the 14 law­makers who signed the joint state­ment on sanc­tions, but who said last week after a clas­si­fied brief­ing with Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry that he sup­ports ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions on Ir­an.

Kirk has said he is hope­ful the bill will be com­ing out this week, and he said his goal was to keep a united front with Men­en­dez and oth­er Demo­crats like Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., on the is­sue.

Sens. Robert Ca­sey, D-Pa., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., who both signed onto the joint state­ment in sup­port of sanc­tions in Novem­ber, each ex­pressed con­tin­ued sup­port for sanc­tions this week but said Men­en­dez is the lead de­cision-maker.

“Bob Men­en­dez is the quar­ter­back,” Ca­sey said.

Blu­menth­al said that tim­ing of a bill in­tro­duc­tion de­pends in part upon the make-up of the co­ali­tion.

“I sup­port a well-reasoned and well-craf­ted meas­ure that will hold the pro­spect of ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions with Ir­an if this first agree­ment fails, and I’m hope­ful that will be done as soon as pos­sible,” he said. “But it has to be well-reasoned and well-craf­ted, and if it takes some ad­di­tion­al time to have a strong bi­par­tis­an co­ali­tion be­hind it, it doesn’t have to be this week.”

He ad­ded, “We are very close to the lan­guage, and I think we are very close to a good co­ali­tion of co­spon­sors as well.”

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