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After U.N. deal, a bipartisan push for U.S. sanctions bill

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stunned the world Tuesday morning when she testified that the United States had reached an agreement with other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on a draft resolution leveling new sanctions against Iran. But there’s one body that the administration still does not have an Iran sanctions agreement with: ...

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stunned the world Tuesday morning when she testified that the United States had reached an agreement with other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on a draft resolution leveling new sanctions against Iran. But there's one body that the administration still does not have an Iran sanctions agreement with: the U.S. Congress.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stunned the world Tuesday morning when she testified that the United States had reached an agreement with other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on a draft resolution leveling new sanctions against Iran. But there’s one body that the administration still does not have an Iran sanctions agreement with: the U.S. Congress.

Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers pledged to swiftly reconcile the two versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one sponsored by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and another led by House Foreign Affairs Committee head Howard Berman, D-CA.

"We hope it will move out of conference this week and be on the floor next week," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, said Tuesday.

"International sanctions make a lot more sense than unilateral … But we’re not going to retreat from the unilateral sanctions effort," said Dodd.

Inside the conference process, there’s a lot going on. Conferees and non-conferees alike have been holding meetings on the legislation both at the staff and member level. Dodd and Berman have been engaged with the administration to work on the fixes the Obama team wants to see in the bill.

The drive to complete the bill quickly, ahead of the U.N. Security Council process, is bipartisan and bicameral. Republicans don’t believe the U.N. language will be tough enough and are resisting administration efforts to have Congress wait for the U.N. track to play out. Democrats don’t want to be pegged as weak on national security, and are cautiously trying to accommodate the administration’s request for a delay.

But leading Republicans are growing impatient.

"I hope that the Democrats and the administration would move forward with that as quickly as possible. They clearly have been stalling for a long period of time," Senate Armed Services committee ranking member John McCain, R-AZ, told The Cable.

And there could be real consequences for Democrats if they don’t complete the conference by May 28, when the Memorial Day recess begins. Aides said that House Republicans agreed to hold off from leveling public admonishments of the conference process, known as "motions to instruct conferees," if and only if the conference finished its work before the recess.

What that means is that after the recess, the House GOP can and probably will force votes as often as every day on the issue, creating news stories about the delay in the legislation and forcing Democratic lawmakers to take uncomfortable votes that could highlight differences they have with the White House.

Despite Hoyer’s confidence, other senior Democrats are skeptical the bill can be passed in time.

"I would hope there could be at least a deal struck by the 28th, even if it doesn’t leave the Congress by then," Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, said in an interview.

House Democrats were more forceful.

"As the administration continues its efforts to rally the international community for strong multilateral sanctions, Congress should move forward with bilateral sanctions," said Nita Lowey, D-NY, the chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations appropriations subcommittee.

Congressional sources inside the process say that with Clinton’s announcement and the new Iran-Turkey-Brazil fuel swap deal, there’s a lot of confusion about what the state of play actually is and what should be done about it.

"There are a lot of moving pieces right now," said one congressional aide close to the process, explaining that there is debate between the House and the Senate, between Democrats and Republicans, and between Congress and the administration, just for starters.

The Clinton announcement and the fuel-swap deal send conflicting signals, the aide said. The former seems to signal that the U.N. process is being sped up; the latter seems to indicate the U.N. process is going to get bogged down.

One theory around the Capitol is that Congress desperately wants to get the bill done and so is likely to cave on substantive issues, such as the White House’s drive to get an exemption written in for "cooperating" countries.

An opposing theory is that the international sanctions are not going to be strong enough, so Congress will become more entrenched in holding to its own ideas of what sanctions should look like.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made it clear Tuesday that the administration doesn’t expect the U.N. to finish up by Memorial Day.

"There’s no particular timetable here," he said. "The president has indicated he’d like to see this done by the end of spring, and that remains the timeline that we are following."

For Congress, that might be a bridge too far. "Patience is wearing thin, and time is running out," the aide said.

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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