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U.S. Senate Majority Supports Iran Sanctions. So Where’s the Pressure?

By Elahe Izadi

National Journal

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 Senator 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 Senators 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 Senators Rand Paul (Ky.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) . 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 Senator 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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