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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 MenendezThe right person for State Department is Rudy Giuliani Warren, Menendez question shakeup at Wells Fargo Democrats press Wells Fargo CEO for more answers on scandal MORE (D-N.J.), who is the co-author of the bill. 

The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerSenate Dems hold out on spending deal, risking shutdown Dems see ’18 upside in ObamaCare repeal Confirm Gary Richard Brown for the Eastern District of New York MORE (N.Y.), Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalOvernight Tech: AT&T, Time Warner CEOs defend merger before Congress | More tech execs join Trump team | Republican details path to undoing net neutrality Overnight Energy: Trump taps EPA foe to head agency | Energy reform bill officially dead CNN’s parent company promises to defend journalistic independence MORE (Conn.), Gary Peters (Mich.), Bob CaseyBob CaseySenate Democrats dig in as shutdown approaches Overnight Finance: Senate Dems dig in as shutdown looms | Trump taps fast-food exec for Labor chief | Portland's new CEO tax Overnight Finance: Funding bill expected tonight | Trump takes on Boeing | House rejects push for IRS impeachment vote | Dow hits new high MORE Jr. (Pa.), Ben CardinBen CardinDems fear Trump undermining US stature Aide: Trump invited Philippine leader to WH Dem senator: Hold hearing on Russian interference in election MORE (Md.), Chris CoonsChris CoonsThe Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's 12:30 Report Trump gets chance to remake the courts MORE (Del.), Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSenate sets date for hearings on Sessions's attorney general nomination Manchin says he's not talking with Trump about job Stopgap funding bill poised to pass Senate before midnight deadline MORE (W.Va.), Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyOvernight Energy: Fight over miners' benefits risks shutdown | Flint aid crosses finish line in House House approves funding bill, but fate in Senate unclear Messer eyes challenging Donnelly for Indiana Senate seat MORE (Ind.), and Debbie StabenowDebbie StabenowFight over water bill heats up in Senate Overnight Energy: Senate Dems set to fight water bill Senate Dems may block water bill over drought language 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 KirkJuan Williams: McConnell won big by blocking Obama Battle for the Senate: Top of ticket dominates The untold stories of the 2016 battle for the Senate 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 McConnellPresident Obama should curb mass incarceration with clemency Cruz, DeSantis to introduce constitutional amendment on term limits Democrats back down from shutdown threat 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 CruzCruz, DeSantis to introduce constitutional amendment on term limits Fiorina to meet with Trump on Monday Trump picks Goldman Sachs chief for top economic adviser: report 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 GillibrandDuckworth: Expediting Mattis waiver 'dangerous' Senate sends annual defense bill to Obama's desk The Hill's 12:30 Report 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.