Senate open to delaying Iran sanctions after heavy White House push

Members of the Senate panel crafting a new round of Iran sanctions said Thursday they're open to delaying action beyond next week after personal lobbying from Obama administration heavyweights. [WATCH VIDEO]

The White House dispatched Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to the Capitol on Thursday to urge Democratic leaders and members of the Senate Banking Committee to delay action as the administration pursues a diplomatic deal over Iran's nuclear program. Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) left the meeting saying he hadn't decided yet whether to introduce and mark up a sanctions bill next week.

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“I haven't decided yet,” Johnson said. “I want to check with the leader [Harry Reid (D-Nev.)] and others about how we can find unanimity or very close to it.”

Several Republicans agreed the administration made a strong case for delay, a rare example of bipartisanship on a politically loaded issue.

“I have supported every sanctions bill that's been offered while I've been in the Senate; I will support every future sanctions bill,” said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). “On the other hand, if there is some possibility of progress and discussion, I'm open to that. We can always pass a sanctions bill [later].”

“The whole idea behind sanctions was to get people to talk, to deal with the issue,” he said. “And so, if we're at a point where we're going to see if that's working, then I'm not going to be opposed to giving it time. Now, time is a relative term; if they're asking for the next year, that isn't going to happen.”

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said the administration is “making a good case” for a delay but that he was still undecided on whether to hold out.

And Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the panel who is crafting the bill with Johnson, said he still thinks the panel should move ahead but is “reevaluating” after hearing from the administration.

“I would seriously consider the points they made, and I am considering them,” he said.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) also favored a delay.

“I think it might behoove us to get the language ironed out and let them do their negotiations,” he said.

Senate hawks, however, were unconvinced.

“From my perspective, next week, they have the second round [of talks with Iran],” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the chief architect of past sanctions bills. “I'd have to hear something far more substantive than what I heard today to dissuade me from being an advocate for pursuing a new round of sanctions.”

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Menendez's partner on past sanctions, agreed.

“My feeling is to keep pushing on,” Kirk told reporters. “I think it was clear that Bob [Menendez] and I had the votes to go ahead.”

Even if the committee did not vote on the sanctions bill, Kirk said that he would also consider introducing the measure as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill, which is expected to be debated on the Senate floor this month.

“I would look for every opportunity as a senator,” he said.

Kirk said he did not put much stock in the recent developments with the Iranians in negotiations over their nuclear program.

“It just seems a long rope-a-dope,” Kirk said.

The House passed tough new sanctions on Iran's energy sector in July on a 400-20 vote.

—Jeremy Herb contributed.

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