Dems back away from Iran sanctions legislation

Amid intense pressure from President Obama and the White House, Senate Democrats appear to be backing away from an immediate vote on a new Iran sanctions bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday he wanted to “wait and see how this plays out” before moving forward with a vote on the sanctions. Reid declined to say when he might bring the bill, which has 59 co-sponsors, including 16 Democrats, to a vote.

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The majority leader noted 10 of his committee chairmen are opposed to the bill, which is sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

The Menendez-Kirk bill would implement new sanctions against Iran should Tehran violate the interim agreement or walk away from the negotiations.

“While [the negotiations] are going on and while the legislative process is working forward here, I’m going to sit and be as fair an umpire as I can be,” Reid said, a sentiment seconded by at least one Democratic co-sponsor of the measure.

Obama had sought to avoid a vote on new sanctions, which could put Senate Democrats in an awkward position, and Reid’s comments indicate he and other members are giving the White House breathing room.

Other Democrats also indicated Tuesday they did not think a vote on the Iran sanctions bill was needed quickly, so long as the negotiations were progressing.

Obama has threatened to veto the Iran sanctions legislation, warning that the measure would derail nuclear negotiations between Iran and the six world powers. The White House has stepped up its rhetoric against the bill in recent days, as the implementation of the six-month deal was finalized this weekend.

Republicans are trying to pressure Reid to give the bill a vote on the Senate floor because it has reached a near filibuster-proof majority of supporters.

“We believe we ought to have that vote,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. “We’re going to continue to press the majority leader to allow a vote on an issue that obviously enjoys the support of a very large bipartisan majority here in the Senate.”

The sanctions bill was not discussed at the Senate Democrats’ weekly policy lunch, several members said.

“I think the Iran sanctions bill is meant to strengthen the president, not in any way impede the ongoing negotiations, which should and hopefully will be successful,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a Menendez-Kirk co-sponsor, told reporters Tuesday. “So as long as there’s progress, and as long as the progress is meaningful and visible, there may not need to be a vote.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), another co-sponsor, said both the administration and Congress wanted to reach a diplomatic solution through negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, if that was possible.

“As far as trying to work out with the administration a strategy so we have more harmony, let’s talk about it,” Cardin said. “So I think that’s what’s going on right now.”

Other Senate Democrats who have stayed quiet on the new sanctions bill expressed opposition to a vote on Tuesday, suggesting it could be difficult for Menendez and Kirk to rack up new co-sponsors to reach a veto-proof majority.

“I’m very willing to vote for additional sanctions if negotiations falter, but right now, we’re in the midst of the first serious discussions with them for a very long time about ending their quest for nuclear weapons, and I think we need to give the diplomatic opportunity a chance,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

“The secretary of State has said that this will hurt him in the negotiations, and I believe the secretary of State,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), explaining his opposition to the sanctions bill.

The bill was drafted after lawmakers from both parties were unhappy with the terms of the interim agreement reached in November allowing Iran to continue enriching 5 percent uranium in exchange for some sanctions relief.

Supporters say the sanctions measure will keep up the pressure on Iran, pointing out that past sanctions drove Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place.

Opponents argue the measure is simply not necessary because Congress would be able to easily pass a new sanctions bill should negotiations with Iran falter.

The Menendez-Kirk legislation has the support of all but two Senate Republicans, and also the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

Schumer declined to answer questions about the Iran bill on Tuesday, walking away from reporters after he had finished talking about unemployment insurance.

A Senate GOP aide said the vast majority of senators would vote for the Menendez-Kirk bill if it were to come to a vote, even if some backers aren’t committing to it publicly.

“No one can produce a list of 34 senators who will commit to voting ‘no’ if the bill is brought to a vote,” the aide said.

There has been some speculation that the House could take up the Menendez-Kirk bill, where it would almost assuredly pass.

But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), one of the 10 chairmen opposed to the sanctions bill, said the House wouldn’t necessarily force Reid’s hand on the measure.

“It probably would be greater pressure to bring the bill up here, but I don’t know that for sure,” Levin said. “There’s a number of bills they pass that we don’t agree with, that the leader doesn’t bring up here.”

Kristina Wong contributed.