By Mike Lillis - 01/14/14 01:26 PM EST
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) hammered the White House on Tuesday for suggesting that lawmakers urging tougher Iran sanctions are advocating for war.
"There have been some that have suggested in the White House that those folks were more interested in war than they were in the resolution by peaceful means," Hoyer said during a press briefing in the Capitol. "I think that is absolutely untrue, an irresponsible assertion and ought to be clarified and retracted by those who have made it within the administration.
"Nobody believes, as far as I know, that going to war with Iran is anything but a dangerous objective that none of us will seek," he added.
Under a six-month interim deal with Iran, the Obama administration has agreed to relax as much as $7 billion in economic sanctions in return for a freeze in parts of Iran's nuclear program and an expansion of weapons inspections.
White House officials have warned that tougher sanctions risk killing a more comprehensive nuclear deal, as Iran negotiators have threatened to abandon the talks if the bill becomes law.
Yet many in Congress have warned that relaxing the sanctions sends the wrong message, and are calling instead for tougher trade restrictions on Iran. A Senate bill to do just that has the backing of 59 lawmakers, including 16 Democrats.
The momentum behind the proposal prompted Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, to say recently that if lawmakers “want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American people and say so."
“Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to continue,” she said Friday in a statement.
White House spokesman Jay Carney has warned that additional sanctions risk a "march to war." And Obama weighed in Sunday with a statement arguing that the interim deal lends "the time and space" for a longer-term deal that new sanctions could sabotage.
"My preference is for peace and diplomacy, and this is one of the reasons why I've sent the message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions," Obama said. "Now is the time for us to allow the diplomats and technical experts to do their work."
It's unclear if or when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will bring the Senate sanctions proposal to the floor over the White House objections.
Hoyer characterized the interim deal as "a positive step," but cautioned that Congress should be allowed to have its voice as well.
Lawmakers in both chambers "have both an obligation and a right and, perhaps, a responsibility to articulate their view as to what needs to be the final outcome of an agreement," he said. "Again, the final outcome must be designed to prevent ... the acquisition of a nuclear weapon capacity by Iran."