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 (Bob) MenendezSenate ethics panel resumes Menendez probe after judge declares mistrial Judge declares mistrial in Menendez bribery case Menendez jury deadlocked, ordered to keep trying MORE (D-N.J.), who is the co-author of the bill. 

The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerAmerica isn't ready to let Sessions off his leash Schumer celebrates New York Giants firing head coach: ‘About time’ GOP should reject the left's pessimism and the deficit trigger MORE (N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Gary Peters (Mich.), Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Dems look to use Moore against GOP MORE Jr. (Pa.), Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinDems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress Former New Mexico gov: Trump's foreign policy is getting 'criticized by everybody' Dems put hold on McFarland nomination over contradictory testimony: report MORE (Md.), Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate ethics panel wants details on sexual harassment allegations American innovation depends on strengthening patents Tax reform and innovation – good news and a cloud MORE (Del.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank Wealthy outsiders threaten to shake up GOP Senate primaries MORE (W.Va.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (Ind.), and Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Democrats to Trump: Ask Forest Service before shrinking monuments 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 KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns 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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters 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 CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 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 Elizabeth GillibrandDemocrats turn on Al Franken Report: Franken will resign Thursday Minnesota's largest newspaper calls on Franken to resign 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.