Dems back down from Iran sanctions fight

Senate Democrats on Tuesday backed down from a confrontation with President Obama over new Iran sanctions, agreeing to withhold support if Republicans bring legislation to the floor.

But the Democrats warned Obama they will only hold the line against the bill for roughly two months, after which point they would be ready to join with Republicans to muscle it through.

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"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," read a letter to Obama spearheaded by Sen. Robert MenendezRobert MenendezSteve Mnuchin, foreclosure king, now runs your US Treasury Senate Dems move to nix Trump's deportation order Senators to Trump: We support additional Iran sanctions MORE (D-N.J.), who is the co-author of the bill. 

The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee With no emerging leaders, no clear message, Democrats flounder Gorsuch hearings: A referendum on Originalism and corporate power MORE (N.Y.), Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalSenators introduce new Iran sanctions Senators demand Pentagon action after nude photo scandal Gorsuch rewrites playbook for confirmation hearings MORE (Conn.), Gary Peters (Mich.), Bob CaseyBob CaseyThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Friends, foes spar in fight on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Sanders to oppose Gorsuch's nomination MORE Jr. (Pa.), Ben CardinBen CardinSenators introduce new Iran sanctions Senate confirms Trump's pick for Israel ambassador Rand Paul roils the Senate with NATO blockade MORE (Md.), Chris CoonsChris CoonsSenators introduce new Iran sanctions Gorsuch sails on day one, but real test is Tuesday Live coverage: Supreme Court nominee hearings begin MORE (Del.), Joe ManchinJoe ManchinThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Senate confirms Trump's pick for Israel ambassador Senate Dems: We won't help pass additional health bills MORE (W.Va.), Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellySenators introduce new Iran sanctions Senate Dems: We won't help pass additional health bills RNC drops six-figure ad buy for Supreme Court, healthcare fight MORE (Ind.), and Debbie StabenowDebbie StabenowPerdue says he will advocate for agriculture spending RNC drops six-figure ad buy for Supreme Court, healthcare fight Five things to watch for in Supreme Court showdown MORE (Mich.).

The new deadline allows Menendez and the other Democrats to support the legislation while honoring the wishes of Obama, who has warned that sanctions could derail the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and pave the way to a military confrontation.

A senior administration official traveling with the president aboard Air Force One said the move to delay the sanctions vote is seen by the White House as a” very constructive signal."

March 24 was already the date that negotiators had set for reaching a political framework for an agreement, with the overall talks set to conclude June 30.

The sanctions bill, which Menendez is co-sponsoring with Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkObamaCare repeal bill would defund Planned Parenthood Leaked ObamaCare bill would defund Planned Parenthood GOP senator won't vote to defund Planned Parenthood MORE (R-Ill.), would slap new sanctions on Iran beginning July 6 if no deal is reached, exacting new punishment on the country’s struggling economy.

Without the support of the 10 Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellOvernight Healthcare: Trump threatens to leave ObamaCare in place if GOP bill fails Senate GOP hedges on ObamaCare repeal timeline Chao: Trump tapped into 'a strain of anxiety,' 'fear' MORE (R-Ky.) likely won’t have enough support to break a Democratic filibuster and get the bill to Obama’s desk.

But Republicans are eager to have the Iran debate, believing they have the upper hand by standing firm against Obama’s foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzPaul: Pence should oversee Senate ObamaCare repeal votes Senators introduce new Iran sanctions With no emerging leaders, no clear message, Democrats flounder MORE (R-Texas) said McConnell should bring an Iran sanctions bill to the Senate floor immediately.

“I think it has been heartbreaking to see how few Democrats, even to this day, are willing to stand up to the Obama administration when it comes to the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability,” he said. 

The March 24 deadline from Menendez sets the stage for a last-ditch push to try to reach the outlines of a deal.

In his letter, Menendez noted that the legislation would allow the president to waive additional sanctions for a month at a time to provide additional flexibility in the negotiations.

The Senate Banking Committee is planning to vote on the bill Thursday, and an aide to Menendez said he plans to co-sponsor and vote for it.

Schumer, another member of the committee, is also likely to vote for the bill. He said Tuesday he would co-sponsor it. 

If the 10 Democrats were to vote for a sanctions bill on the floor, Republicans would be close to a veto-proof majority of 67. Only three additional Democrats would be needed. 

Sens. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSenators demand Pentagon action after nude photo scandal Chelsea Clinton to be honored by Variety, Lifetime Ten years later, House Dems reunite and look forward MORE (D-N.Y.) backed an earlier version of the sanctions bill in the last Congress, but they did not sign Menendez’s letter. 

Last updated at 6:19 p.m.

Justin Sink contributed.