GOP presses Obama to implement sanctions without broad waivers

Republicans are already pressuring President Barack Obama to implement a new round of sanctions against Iran with full force.

The conference report passed by Congress on Thursday gives the president a waiver authority to not implement sanctions on a case-by-case basis against companies found to be doing business with blacklisted entities in Iran.

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Lawmakers began pushing the White House to not use that authority during floor votes on the bill in both the House and Senate.

“First and foremost, the sanctions in this legislation need to be implemented and implemented quickly, not waived ... The time for further delay is past," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday.

The statements and floor speeches show that debate over what to do about Iran’s nuclear program is not over. GOP lawmakers will not relent on pressing the White House despite the overwhelming vote Thursday — 99-0 in the Senate, 408-8 in the House — for what many called the toughest sanctions ever placed on Iran.

Like McConnell, other Republicans on Capitol Hill are pushing the administration to move quickly on the legislation.

“We know Iran’s greatest weakness: it's dependence on foreign gasoline. I hope the administration will hear our clear bipartisan call. Mr. President, sign it and seal it. Sign this bill and seal off Iran’s gasoline," said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

“While this bill is a vast improvement over the weak half-measures taken by the United Nations, the effectiveness of our own sanctions depends on President Obama’s willingness to vigorously implement them to the fullest extent. Utilizing the broad waivers demanded by his administration would put this entire effort at risk,” said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.).

In the bill — merged between two different versions that passed the House and the Senate earlier — the president is given the discretion to waive sanctions against certain companies if he believes it is in the United States’ interest.

The waiver will last for a year but it can be renewed by the White House. The president, however, will have to report to the relevant congressional committees on why he granted the waiver and ensure that the affected company is not helping Iran build up its nuclear or military capability.

In addition, under the legislation, the Treasury secretary can issue a waiver toward a bank if he, like the president, determines it is in the national interest, which he will then have to report to Congress.

Asked for reaction to the GOP lawmakers’ comments, a White House spokesman referred to an earlier statement put out this week. This White House statement was in response to the release of the bill’s conference report before it was voted on.

“We will continue to work with the Congress over the coming days as it finalizes work on this important bill, and in our ongoing efforts to hold Iran accountable. As that effort progresses, we will also work with our allies and take independent action under the President’s existing authorities, as we did last week in designating additional entities for sanctions,” the White House said in a statement Monday.

The new round of sanctions against Iran are primarily aimed at the country’s refined petroleum sector, where lawmakers want to limit the amount of gas available to the regime. They also target the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — considered to be behind the crackdown of last year’s election protests — by denying any bank found to be doing business with the Guard access to the U.S. financial system.

Business associations were alarmed by some of the provisions in the bill and lobbied lawmakers to soften their blow. Many said some measures could hamper U.S. trade and hurt job growth as well, but progress has been made through negotiations with Capitol Hill.

“I think this bill is a lot better than when it started. It's not perfect,” said Catherine Robinson, director of high-tech trade policy for the National Association of Manufacturers. “Congress can meet their goal of putting effective sanctions on the Iranian regime without hindering U.S. trade unrelated to Iran too much. Is it everything we asked for? No.”

Trade groups pushed lawmakers to give more flexibility to the president under the Iran sanctions bill. A significant change in the legislation includes giving the president “a menu of options” to choose from when issuing sanctions instead of mandating the actions the president must take, according to Robinson.

As long as the White House uses the new law, Robinson believes the president will have an easier time granting waivers and will face little pushback from Congress.

“If this new Iran sanctions law is used more by this administration than previous ones, that will give the president more credibility with the Hill to exercise discretion as authorized by the legislation,” Robinson said.

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