How Congress Could Steamroll Iran Sanctions Past Obama

How Congress Could Steamroll Iran Sanctions Past Obama

Despite repeated objections from the White House, Senate Democrats and Republicans are charging ahead with plans to pass new sanctions legislation against Iran.

Though some Democrats fear burning bridges with the White House, aides tell The Cable that negotiations between senators in both parties are closing in on legislation that would impose new sanctions on Tehran after six months — the length of the preliminary nuclear deal recently hammered out in Geneva. The bill would include an option to delay the punitive action if U.S. talks on a final deal appear promising. Despite earlier reports that Republican hawks would dismiss such legislation as overly lenient, a Senate aide says that’s not the case.

Like perhaps no other foreign policy issue, Iran sanctions have pitted President Obama against a sizeable portion of his own party. In the last week, powerful Democrats such as Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York have openly defied the White House and advocated for new sanctions legislation.

On Friday, the administration attempted to demonstrate support for its Geneva deal by circulating a handout of lawmakers saying positive things about the agreement. But out of 535 members of the House and Senate, the White House only collected statements from 17 lawmakers — in a list that counted mildly supportive tweets as endorsements.

In the latest sign of Democrats’ open willingness to cross the administration, Menendez accused the White House of "fear-mongering" in its claims that new sanctions legislation would kill the nuclear deal and lead to war with Iran.

"As one of the architects of the sanctions regime we’ve had on Iran, this is exactly the process that has brought Iran to the negotiating table," Menendez told Face the Nation on Sunday. "While we have heard naysayers in the past say, no, we shouldn’t pursue those sanctions, it seems to me that prospectively looking for sanctions that are invoked six months from the date of enactment … sends a message to Iran, as it has throughout this process, that there is a consequence if you don’t strike a successful deal."

Sources say a version of that proposal is currently being hammered out between Democrats and Republicans despite White House opposition. The law would work like this: If after six months, when the current interim deal with Iran is set to expire, no deal is made, then new sanctions against Tehran will take effect. However, if at that juncture, the White House needs more time to finish negotiating a final comprehensive deal, the bill gives the administration more flexibility.

How much flexibility is precisely what Democrats and Republicans are trying to work out. "The assumption that hawks would oppose this is only true if this latitude to delay for further talks is indefinite," a Senate aide tells The Cable. "If it’s like 30 days because they think a deal is imminent, not sure hawks would object to that as long as [the administration] doesn’t get endless 30-day renewals for talks to drag on forever."

The big unknown in these negotiations is Senate Majority Harry Reid, who is now caught between his Democratic Caucus and President Obama.

After a new sanctions bill passed by a landslide in the House, a bipartisan group of 76 senators including Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) penned a letter advocating for a tougher stance against Iran. Importantly, the call for a harder line came after the charm offensive by the newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Where Reid stands is unclear. Prior to the Nov. 23 deal with Iran, Reid said the Senate "must be prepared" to add new sanctions in December. In a more recent appearance on the Diane Rehm Show he said members would need to talk it over. "If we need more work on this, we need to do stronger sanctions, I’m sure we will do that," he said. "So I look forward to input from both the majority and the minority."

Meanwhile, he continues to face bipartisan pressure in Congress’s march to add sanctions. "It will be up to Senator Reid to decide whether we have that opportunity on the floor over the next two or three weeks or whether he’s going to continue to block for the administration so that that doesn’t occur," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn) told Face the Nation. " I know Senator Menendez and I both will be working to try to figure out some way of ensuring that we get to the appropriate end game."

When asked if it it would veto legislation on new sanctions, administration officials have declined to comment.