King: Obama veto threat ‘strategic mistake’

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a White House ally on Iran, slammed President Obama for threatening to veto sanctions during Tuesday's State of the Union address.

King likened the president's ultimatum to “waving a red flag” in front of lawmakers during a wide-ranging interview with The Hill.

“I thought it was a strategic mistake,” said King, who said he has come to regret several veto threats he issued as governor of Maine. “I just think it was unnecessary.”

King gave Obama high marks for his diplomatic engagement with Iran, however. He said the president was right to engage Iran — and that Congress would be wrong to pass sanctions now.

“These negotiations are the most promising opportunity we've had ever to get rid of the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, which is a grave danger to the world,” he said. “Why do something else right now that could knock that off the rails? The Iranians have said, if we pass new sanctions, they're walking.”

King has provided much-needed cover to Obama by declining to join the 59 lawmakers who have endorsed the sanctions bill.

For the time being, it appears any effort to bring that legislation to the floor has stalled.

King also penned a New York Times op-ed on the issue with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Ever the independent, King set the record straight when asked why he agreed with the White House that now's the time for new sanctions.

“It's not so much that I agree with the White House, because that implies that's why I'm taking the position that I am,” he said. “No, my position is that it would be a very big mistake to move on sanctions now.”

He said the sanctions that are really biting Iran aren't so much America's, but the rest of the world's decision to stop buying Iranian oil. If Congress passes sanctions now, he said, they could reconsider.

“All of those countries are supporting these negotiations, and if they start to say: 'Well, America is just playing games here — they're negotiating and then they're passing new sanctions,' and the sanctions fall apart, that would be a disaster,” he said. “Ironically, passing new sanctions could weaken the sanctions.”

A member of the Armed Services and Intelligence panels, King said the only alternative to diplomacy is military action. He raised concerns that military strikes might not permanently prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, and could instead cement their determination to acquire one.

Proponents of the sanctions bill argue that passing it now would strengthen the president's negotiating hand. King said he's seen no evidence of that.

King said Congress could use more independent voices, even if they're not officially labeled as such. He declined to endorse former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, who's running as an independent in South Dakota, but said he enjoys working with Republicans.

“I welcome more people who are open-minded and want to make decisions based on the best policy,” he said. “I don't think they necessarily need to be labeled as independent.”

He said being an independent was a “luxury” that “enables me to call them as I see them.”

King also pitched his bipartisan push to strip the NFL of its nonprofit status as a first stab at reforming tax exemption laws.

King is co-sponsoring legislation with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that would strip the NFL and the PGA of their nonprofit status. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced similar legislation in the House this week.

“When you have a nonprofit and they're tax exempt, that means everybody else is paying a little bit more,” he said. “And how do I look at the people in Maine and say: 'You have to pay a little bit more in taxes so that the NFL can have a tax break?' ”

He said the bill is only the first bite at tax reform.

“This is a way of lifting the corner of a very big tent of tax expenditures — over $1 trillion that's going out of the Treasury to tax breaks, exclusions, loopholes,” he said. “And I think we need to look at that whole thing. This is a pretty interesting place to start, I think.”