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Will Congress pass new Iran sanctions this year?

Will Congress pass new Iran sanctions this year?

Legislation that would impose a new regime of sanctions against Iran appears stalled in Congress, but behind the scenes both chambers are working to come up with a package that can be signed into law this summer.

The Senate passed the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012 in May, legislation that would punish any entity that provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment — as well as communications jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the Obama administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed new assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.

The legislation, named for Senate Banking Committee heads Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), would formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime. The House version was passed last December and has some key differences compared to the Senate bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said in May that the sanctions were so urgent he couldn’t even allow floor time for senators to debate the bill and offer amendments. Now, two months later, there seems to be no progress. The Cable asked Reid on Tuesday what was going on with the bill.

"Nothing’s happening. I wish I had a better answer," Reid said. "We can’t get it done unless we have two to tango."

Reid and multiple senate aides said that the House has not been responsive to Senate requests to iron out differences between the two versions of the bill so both chambers can pass it again and send it to the president’s desk.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told The Cable that there will be no conference involving lawmakers, but rather an informal staff conference. Menendez is the author of some of the key provisions in the legislation

"The House hasn’t shown any capacity to do it and we are going to call over there and see if we can get them focused on this in the midst of everything else," he said. "I think time is of the essence."

Multiple aides in both chambers said that staff discussions between key offices are ongoing, with meetings being held this week. One senior Senate aide said that the House committee leaders wanted a formal conference but Senate Democrats resisted. Johnson’s staff is working behind the scenes to come up with a compromise draft bill, this aide said, while various offices and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in particular, are working behind the scenes to lobby for the inclusion of provisions they think are important.

Some of the disputed issues between the  House and the Senate are minor. For example, one provision under discussion focuses on how stringent the language should be requiring the administration to investigate allegations of sanctions busting by other countries. Other issues are more pronounced, such as whether all Iranian banks should be included in the sanctions.

The clock is ticking, however. If the bill isn’t finished by the end of this month, which is the end of the current legislative session, there’s little chance Congress will pass it this fall so close to the election.

"There is a sense that if this isn’t done in July it will not get done before the congressional election," one senior Senate aide said. "If the staffs of all the key offices agree on a compromise bill this could be done very quickly via a suspension vote in the House and a unanimous consent vote in the Senate. This is the time to do it.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, struck an optimistic note in a statement she gave to The Cable.

"I’m pleased that we are making progress on this important Iran sanctions legislation that the House passed overwhelmingly last year," Ros-Lehtinen said. "House and Senate negotiators are committed to reaching an agreement on final Iran sanctions text to send to the President’s desk before the Congress adjourns in August."