Congressional Infighting Could Boost White House in Iran Talks

Competing legislation threatens a major sanctions push in Congress

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<> on June 5, 2014 in Washington, DC.

A hawkish Iran sanctions bill that President Barack Obama threatened to veto in his State of the Union address now faces an unexpected foe in Congress: competing legislation sponsored by Republicans.

On Wednesday, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) offered an alternative proposal to a controversial piece of legislation sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey that would impose new sanctions on Tehran if world powers fail to strike an agreement that would restrain the country’s nuclear program.

Paul’s proposal, which is still being hammered out with California Democrat Barbara Boxer, would mandate votes in Congress to reinstate sanctions against Iran if it violates any aspects of a final nuclear deal. Boxer called the proposal a “moderate” alternative that would give lawmakers the opportunity to re-impose “waived or suspended sanctions against Iran if the president in consultation with the intelligence community, determines that Iran has violated any existing nuclear agreement.” She and her staff did not offer more details, saying the two lawmakers were still putting the “finishing touches” on the legislation.

Unlike the Kirk-Menendez bill, the Obama administration remains open to the Paul-Boxer proposal because it would not derail the sensitive negotiations playing out in Vienna. That’s a problem for Menendez and Kirk, who want to unite Congress behind their own Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act.

“I oppose the legislation I’ve seen so far,” Boxer said Wednesday at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “I am working on legislation with Senator Paul to send a clear, unequivocal signal that Iran will be held accountable for its actions and any failure to fulfill its commitments will be met by swift action by Congress.”

To build a veto-proof majority, the Kirk-Menendez bill needs the support of at least 13 Democrats. Given the impressive bipartisan support for the sanctions legislation last year — it garnered 60-cosponsors — many believed a Republican-controlled Congress could overcome the president’s veto. However, a number of hawkish Democrats who previously supported such legislation — including Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — have begun to waffle on the legislation in recent days,

“The administration has a point. I think we should listen to what they have to say,” Cardin, a co-sponsor of the Menendez-Kirk legislation, told reporters on Tuesday. “Hopefully we can reach some agreement on when’s the best timing for its consideration.”

A prospective bill by Paul and Boxer could peel off the Democratic votes that Kirk and Menendez need — especially as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, called the sanctions legislation a “very serious strategic error” on Wednesday.

But Menendez and Kirk have other problems too.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is preparing a third bill: legislation that would require a vote on a joint resolution of disapproval for any final nuclear deal with Iran. Corker says his bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)  is needed because Congress must “weigh in” on final deal with Iran. Because the legislation is still being fleshed out, it’s unclear if a “no vote” would simply stand as a symbolic protest, or go further and defund the specific administrative actions needed to implement the deal.

Regardless, pro-Israel hawks in Congress want to keep the focus on the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act rather than Corker’s bill, because the legislation does not enjoy the Democratic support that Kirk-Menendez does.

Some Republicans disagree with that strategy. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, wants Corker’s bill to move first because it is less controversial and would not allow the administration to blame Republicans if an Iran deal does not materialize by the self-imposed June 30 deadline. McCain told Bloomberg last week that it’s too soon to “worry about the additional sanctions.”

The challenge for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be to find a peaceable solution among a diverse GOP Senate that doesn’t fracture the Democratic support for Iran sanctions legislation.

Critics of Kirk-Menendez received an unexpected boost from a separate hearing held on Wednesday by the GOP-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee. The panel hosted foreign policy luminaries Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security advisers of President George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter respectively. Both men opposed new Iran sanctions legislation.

“They will break the talks,” said Scowcroft, who also served under President Gerald Ford. “I think we should see them out and not take steps which would destroy the negotiations.” Proponents of the Kirk-Menendez legislation dispute that the bill would disrupt negotiations.

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