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Iran sanctions bill benefits from Joe-mentum

The Senate passed Chris Dodd‘s Iran sanctions package Thursday evening, following the narrow avoidance of a last-minute crisis over amendments that was solved by … wait for it … the mediation of Joseph Lieberman. That’s right. "Joe Lieberman came down and saved the day," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. Here’s how it all ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The Senate passed Chris Dodd's Iran sanctions package Thursday evening, following the narrow avoidance of a last-minute crisis over amendments that was solved by ... wait for it ... the mediation of Joseph Lieberman.

That's right. "Joe Lieberman came down and saved the day," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. Here's how it all went down behind the scenes:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was under a lot of pressure to pass the sanctions bill out of the Senate, especially after seven senators sent a bipartisan letter to Obama yesterday urging him to get moving on sanctions. The Dodd bill was extremely popular among senators and Reid has enough problems without being seen as weak on Iran.

The Senate passed Chris Dodd‘s Iran sanctions package Thursday evening, following the narrow avoidance of a last-minute crisis over amendments that was solved by … wait for it … the mediation of Joseph Lieberman.

That’s right. "Joe Lieberman came down and saved the day," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. Here’s how it all went down behind the scenes:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was under a lot of pressure to pass the sanctions bill out of the Senate, especially after seven senators sent a bipartisan letter to Obama yesterday urging him to get moving on sanctions. The Dodd bill was extremely popular among senators and Reid has enough problems without being seen as weak on Iran.

Reid had promised to get it done before the break, but if he brought up the bill in February, the administration would complain that it was unhelpful in its drive to seek a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran sanctions, which they are expected to do as soon as France takes over the presidency of the council from China next week.

So tonight was the night, before senators leave town, and The Cable reported earlier today that negotiations were underway. As the deadline loomed, only one Senator was threatening to derail the plan to pass the bill easily: John McCain.

McCain’s proposed amendment would require the president to sanction Iranian officials who have committed human rights abuses or acts of violence against civilians engaging in peaceful political activity. Those listed would be subject to visa bans, freezes on their assets in the United States or within U.S. jurisdiction, and other restrictions on their financial activities.

"McCain’s amendment would identify Iranian human rights abusers and make them feel some serious pain,” said another senior Senate staffer.

But Reid didn’t want to open a Pandora’s Box by allowing McCain’s amendment and then having to allow amendments by others seeking to weigh in, like John Kerry and Patrick Leahy. He needed everyone on board to pass the bill by unanimous consent and avoid a protracted debate that would eat up precious floor time he doesn’t have.

At the eleventh hour, in swooped Lieberman with a compromise. McCain would agree to withdraw his amendment if Reid agreed to add the substance of McCain’s amendment into the conference report on the bill. Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both promised to hold up their end of the bargain, and McCain withdrew his objection to proceeding.

"Lieberman deserves a lot of credit for getting this done," the aide said.

So now the bill goes to conference with the House, which passed Howard Berman’s version weeks ago. Does this mean it’s time to stock up on petrol and canned goods in Tehran? Not yet; the Democratic leadership will probably wait until the administration’s U.N. effort has a chance to play out one way or the other.

And when the conference does happen, the administration will have a role in the crafting of the final version and is likely to continue to argue for things like an exemption for foreign countries that cooperate with American sanctions.

"The next battle will be to make sure the State Department doesn’t water this thing down," one senior GOP aide said.

He added that this compromise marks a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation in the upper chamber, saying, "I think this was a good day for the Senate."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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