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Senate Democrats Defy Obama on Iran

By Stacy Kaper

National Journal

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), seen last month, is defying Obama administration pleas by pursuing new sanctions legislation against Iran (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images). U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), seen last month, is defying Obama administration pleas by pursuing new sanctions legislation against Iran (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images).

A bipartisan group of senators will soon file legislation for new sanctions against Iran, defying President Obama's pleas to await work toward a comprehensive deal.

Lawmakers are circulating measures to impose additional sanctions that would kick in after the six-month negotiating window to reach a final agreement 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 Senator 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 on 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."

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is part of the talks, said on 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 Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is working on the legislation and said he expects the bill will be introduced before the chamber 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 Senator 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 Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the issue.

Senators 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 decisionmaker.

"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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