Yes, Virginia, there will be an Iran sanctions bill

Congress will act, whether the White House likes it or not

Olivier Knox, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

Bad news, White House: It looks like the Senate will push ahead with a legislative response to the Iran interim nuclear deal over your strenuous objections.

Good news, White House: The measure will most likely be so watered down that it will give President Barack Obama broad latitude to pursue his high-wire diplomatic effort to ensure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.

And it won’t get voted on before January, at the earliest.

Lawmakers will act despite an aggressive campaign by the Obama administration, including a classified question-and-answer session on Iran Wednesday with Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

“If what we do next screws up the negotiations with the Iranians, then the Iranians weren’t serious about the negotiations,” one senator told Yahoo News after emerging from that closed-door briefing. The senator requested anonymity to discuss the still-fluid state of play in Congress.

Kerry, Obama’s point man on convincing lawmakers to hold their fire, declined to characterize the session. “We just had a good meeting,” he told reporters. Did he get his point across? “You should ask the senators,” he replied.

The senators were similarly tight-lipped.

At issue is how Congress will weigh in on an interim deal, unveiled late last month, under which Iran will freeze suspicious nuclear activities and allow intrusive (but as-yet unspecified) verification and monitoring in return for a partial easing of sanctions worth about $7 billion to its battered economy. The White House says any new legislation risks collapsing the talks by sending the message that Washington is negotiating in bad faith.

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and staunch advocate of keeping pressure on Iran, has been in “furious negotiations” with Republicans on legislative language that would threaten sanctions if Iran balks at a comprehensive nuclear deal, a GOP aide told Yahoo News.

After the closed-door session, Menendez hinted that he might have an announcement later in the day but otherwise had no comment.

“Sen. Menendez is a very articulate advocate for the idea that the only reason the Iranians are at the table is because of pressure,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told reporters after the Kerry-Lew briefing.

“The only way that you’ll get a final deal that will protect us — and Israel and all of our friends in the region and the world at large — is to continue the pressure,” Graham said, underlining that he supports sanctions that “would only go into effect after the negotiating period.”

Under the interim agreement the United States and its partners tentatively reached with Iran, the two sides have six months to hammer out a comprehensive deal that trades easing of painful economic sanctions on Iran for verifiable assurances that the Islamic republic won’t build a nuclear weapon.

Graham predicted a “bipartisan breakthrough” on the measure soon and a vote “sometime no later than the middle of January.”

An early proposal from Menendez would have imposed sanctions after the six-month period — but give Obama the power to defer them for 30 days, and then again for another 30 days, if a broader deal appears imminent. After that, the administration would need to certify that Iran has met certain benchmarks in order to put off the sanctions.

(In some ways, the proposal resembles Congress’s response to then-President George W. Bush’s troop “surge” in Iraq: Avoid any serious challenge to the policy, but require the executive branch to put its credibility on the line while informing Congress of signs of progress or failure.)

But some Republicans, including the top GOP member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, favor an approach that would lay out what Congress considers an acceptable final deal. Some favor imposing sanctions if the deal does not clear that bar; others say the measure should simply get lawmakers on the record.

“We should pursue additional sanctions right now,” Sen. James Risch, an Idaho Republican who dislikes the interim deal, told Yahoo News. What form should those take? “Whichever will get the most number of votes, I’m in on,” replied Risch, a committed conservative with a reputation for pragmatism.

In any case, there are no legislative vehicles to pass whatever emerges from those discussions in 2013. Congress will press ahead with a defense spending bill and a budget deal — and lawmakers all agree that neither measure will carry Iran sanctions language.

An early January vote, though? Would Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid allow it?

Some close to Reid emphasize that he will do what is best for Senate Democrats, not the White House, with the 2014 midterm elections fast approaching. Skeptical Republicans say he may have already done enough to delay passage of Iran legislation by announcing it should go through the Senate Banking Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and keeping it from coming to a vote in 2013.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson told reporters after the Kerry-Lew meeting that he would make an announcement on Thursday at a hearing to assess the interim Iran deal. Earlier this week, Johnson said he favored giving Obama room for negotiations and would not push ahead with legislation “for now.”

While there are options for bypassing the committee process — potentially shaving a month or more from the overall timetable — Reid holds the key to bringing the measure to an actual vote.

That’s far from guaranteed, even with robust support among Democrats. If he does, however, history suggests an overwhelming vote. The last batch of sanctions, adopted over Obama’s objections in Dec. 2011, passed 100-0.

After that, the House of Representatives could either adopt the Senate measure or call a bicameral “conference” to find a compromise between the upper body’s bill and its own sanctions measure, passed 400-20 last summer.

At that point, Obama could opt to veto the measure, courting an override vote, or find other ways to dilute the measure.

The president, speaking at a forum on Middle East policy Saturday, pressed Congress to hold off for now on new legislation.

“If at the end of six months it turns out that we can’t make a deal, we’re no worse off, and in fact we have greater leverage with the international community to continue to apply sanctions and even strengthen them,” he said.

Interestingly, the interim agreement itself seems to recognize the tension between the White House and Congress on this issue.

“The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions,” it says.

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