Report

Democratic Support for Iran Sanctions Shrinks

Obama has threatened to veto a bill that could blow up the nuclear talks. He may not have to.

Sen. Robert Menendez Speaks At AIPAC
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 05: U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference at the Washington Convention Center March 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. Sen. Menendez boldly confirmed the political, historical and military ties between the United States and Israel. It was reported that the Dominican Republic escort who claimed Menendez paid her for sex has recanted her story and was paid to make the statement. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

One of the biggest legislative threats to President Barack Obama’s second term agenda has just become significantly less threatening.

Late Tuesday night, Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) re-introduced the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act, a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran if international negotiators fail to reach a deal to restrain Tehran’s nuclear program by June 30.

But unlike last year, when the bill garnered the co-sponsorship of 17 Democrats, and nearly every Republican, liberal support for the legislation has shrunk following a concerted White House effort to drum up opposition to the bill. Obama has repeatedly threatened to veto the legislation because he believes it would blow up the delicate talks.

“I think the president made a very strong case in the State of the Union speech and combined with the growing chorus of international partners on this issue, there’s a lot of members who want to give negotiations a chance,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told Foreign Policy in an interview.

This time around, the bill only enjoys the cosponsorship of seven Democrats: Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Menendez. In order to build a veto-proof majority of 67, hawks are going to need more Democratic votes

Those who dropped off the list include Michael Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Chris Coons of Delaware and others.

A spokesman for Menendez disputed the notion that Democratic support is waning, noting that he expects the bill to gain more sponsors as it is voted out of the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday. “When [the first bill] was introduced, Democratic sponsors trickled in over months. You didn’t get 17 co-sponsors on the first or second day,” he said.

Still, the dip in Democratic cosponsors from the original Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act is a setback for Menendez, who’s been making his case for Iran sanctions legislation for the better part of a year and earned the ire of many senior administration officials along the way.

A key turning point came two weeks ago during a testy exchange between Menendez and the president at the Democratic retreat in Baltimore. During a question-and-answer session, Obama stressed that he believed sanctions legislation would upend the fragile international negotiations in Vienna. Days later, Menendez shrank back from his aggressive posture.

“The president made a very strong and clear case at the retreat and he’s been equally forceful in public,” said Murphy.

Conceding ground in a letter to the president this week, Menendez promised not to vote in support of new Iran sanctions legislation until after March 24, the self-imposed deadline for negotiators to devise a framework for a deal with Iran.

Democratic supporters of negotiations point to that standoff and a new resolution in the Senate as evidence that the case for diplomacy is building.

On Monday, Murphy and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution in support of the White House’s diplomatic efforts and in opposition to the Kirk-Menendez legislation.

“Enacting new sanctions before the end of the negotiating period would gravely undermine our efforts to reach an agreement with Iran,” Feinstein said.

The bill includes Democratic cosponsors Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Angus King (I-Maine), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), John Tester (D-Mont.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

While progressives seem to have the upper hand at the moment, that could change in March if Tehran and Washington fail to reach a framework agreement on restraining the nuclear program.

At that time, hawks like Menendez will doubtlessly renew their push for sanctions, arguing that Iran is not serious about limiting its nuclear program.

That argument will enjoy the support of another prominent Obama critic, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will be in Washington in March to address a joint session of Congress at the request of Republican House Speaker John Boehner. While Netanyahu’s opposition to the White House’s efforts could sway some pro-Israel Democrats, the prime minister’s arrival in D.C. ahead of Israel’s national elections is already inviting charges of political opportunism in pro-Israel circles, which could blunt Netanyahu’s lobbying muscle. Obama, meanwhile, has made a point of publicly refusing to meet with the visiting Israeli leader.

 Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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