By Burgess Everett
President Barack Obama’s exhaustive lobbying effort with Capitol Hill Democrats is paying off: The party is giving him major breathing room to finish nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Senate Democrats, led by Iran hawk Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said Tuesday that they will give Obama two months to reach a deal on the country’s nuclear program before they vote for new sanctions. At the same time, House progressives are urging their colleagues to hold off on moving any legislation that would tighten economic penalties on Iran.
Menendez led a group of at least 10 Senate Democrats who told the president in a letter Tuesday morning that they will not support final passage of a sanctions bill until March 24. That will allow the U.S. and other Western powers time to reach a framework for a deal scaling down Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama has said he will veto a sanctions bill if it comes to his desk while negotiators race to reach a deal, arguing that even the conditional sanctions bill being led by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) would disrupt the fragile talks.
In the letter, obtained by POLITICO, the Democrats defended the forthcoming sanctions legislation as “reasonable and pragmatic” given that the economic penalties would kick in only if negotiators fail to reach a final agreement by June 30. But in a major blow to Republicans itching to vote on sanctions perhaps as early as February, the Democrats said they are willing to defer to Obama as negotiators zero in on a March 24 deadline to reach a rough agreement, with hopes of finishing a pact by July.
“In acknowledgement of your concern regarding congressional action on legislation at this moment, we will not vote for this legislation on the Senate floor before March 24,” the Democrats wrote. “After March 24, we will only vote for this legislation on the Senate floor if Iran fails to reach agreement on a political framework that addresses all parameters of a comprehensive agreement. This deadline is the critical test of Iranian intentions.”
Menendez has been viewed as the key bellwether for Democratic support on new sanctions, and his position along with that of a number of other Democrats ensures that unless negotiations break down in the interim, Congress will not be able to produce veto-proof majorities for new sanctions. Their position could influence Republican leaders to turn to other matters on the Senate floor in the meantime, given that sanctions legislation is unlikely to even break a filibuster as long Democrats are paying Obama deference.
Still, Menendez noted in the letter that there is deep skepticism in the president’s party over the ability to actually reach a deal that blunts Iran’s nuclear enrichment program in return for further loosening of some sanctions.
“Considering Iran’s history in nuclear negotiations and after two extensions of the Joint Plan of Action, we are concerned that Iran is intentionally extending the negotiations to improve its leverage at the negotiating table,” Menendez and the other Democrats wrote. “We expect that your Administration will consult closely with Members of Congress in the coming months, and look forward to working with you to achieve our shared goal of reversing Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon capability.”
The New Jersey Democrat announced the letter in a Senate Banking hearing on Tuesday as the panel speeds toward a vote on Kirk’s sanctions bill on Thursday. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has said repeatedly that it’s full speed ahead on a committee vote.
Separately, House Democrats are also pushing their colleagues not to enact Iran sanctions. Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Barbara Lee of California sent a letter Tuesday to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Banking Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, arguing that new sanctions would derail the talks.
“Enacting new sanctions legislation now undermines the efforts of the P5+1 and is contrary to a peaceful solution,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter obtained by POLITICO. “Given the sensitive timing, Congressional action should reflect support for a negotiated settlement over the Iranian nuclear dispute rather than pushing legislation that could take us off the negotiating track and escalate towards war.”
The House progressives added that a “diplomatic solution to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is in the best interest of U.S. national security.”
The comments from Lee, a leading anti-war advocate, and Grijalva and Ellison, the co-chairs of the House’s progressive caucus, put a marker down for House Democrats on a sanctions bill. The conference has been relatively quite on the merits of moving forward with sanctions during the negotiations.
Ellison, Grijalva and Lee all voted against the 2013 Iran sanctions bill, which passed the House 400 to 20.