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Iran sanctions debate moves to the Senate

Iran sanctions debate moves to the Senate

With the House having passed the Howard Berman‘s Iran sanctions bill Tuesday, the action now turns to the Senate, where negotiations over Chris Dodd‘s companion legislation are ongoing.

Those discussions are based on a letter from Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA. In the letter, State asked Kerry to delay the Senate bill until next year so that the administration would have more time to prep for the "pressure track" and also to secure some changes to the legislation.

But key lawmakers are already getting ready to resist. Senators to watch in this debate are Democrat Evan Bayh, D-IN, Republican Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, and Richard Shelby, R-AL, and Independent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

A senior GOP senate aide told The Cable that up until now, the debate has been between Kerry’s office and Steinberg’s office, but there’s a push by others to make the administration do more to justify the changes it wants regarding one prominent issue.

The bill as it stands gives the president the right to waive sanctions against third-party countries that are cooperating with U.S. efforts to confront Iran’s nuclear program. The administration wants those countries to be exempted from the start and then have sanctions applied only when necessary.

"The administration has not made a compelling argument as to why the waiver isn’t sufficient for them to avoid doing diplomatic harm to allies, in the case where companies within their jurisdictions are doing things that may become sanctionable," the aide said. "That’s what the waiver is there for."

Another senior Senate aide said that the offices of Bayh, Lieberman, and Kyl were all on the same page in terms of strategy, and predicted the negotiations with the administration would eventually produce a bill that could garner widespread support and be passed early next year.

Of course, Dodd’s bill has 80 cosponsors, meaning it could pass at any time if Reid would just bring it to the floor. Some aides think Kerry has a hold on the bill, which his staffers deny. Others believe Reid is simply not moving it out of deference to the administration or as a favor to Kerry.

Regardless, no movement is expected until Kerry or some other Democrat readies an amendment that would address the administration’s concerns. Then, the amended bill would be sent to conference to be reconciled with the House bill, which still contains the waiver language the administration dislikes.

A duly revised Senate bill seems likely to win the day in conference, not least because Berman signaled his willingness to compromise on the waiver issue Tuesday.

In a press conference just after the bill passed, Berman spelled out the terms under which he would agree to alter the waiver provisions when his legislation meets the Senate’s version for negotiations.

"I’m quite open in the context of a conference committee to try to create incentives by which countries that have their own robust sanctions and are complying with a tough international regime of sanctions could be exempted from this legislation as cooperating countries," he said.

He also acknowledged that although his committee had been talking to the administration, the Obama team never gave him detailed instructions on how to proceed, as Steinberg did with Kerry.

"The administration didn’t say go ahead, but they also didn’t tell me not to go ahead," Berman said.

His bill passed 412-12 with 4 voting "present."