By Julian Pecquet - 01/23/14 06:00 AM EST
A Republican takeover of the Senate this fall could scuttle one of President Obama’s biggest second term goals — a nuclear deal with Iran.
Republicans have lambasted the interim agreement with Iran, calling for the Senate to move an Iran sanctions bill. The House last year passed a measure in an overwhelming and bipartisan 400-20 vote.
A number of Democrats have also criticized the interim accord, which lifted $6 billion in sanctions on Iran in exchange for a commitment to restrictions on enriching uranium.
Critics in both parties say the deal gave away too much to Iran.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has given Obama cover by refusing to bring sanctions legislation to the floor.
If Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) becomes majority leader, sanctions legislation could move quickly to the floor and could attract a veto-proof majority.
“If Republicans held the majority, we would have voted already; with Democrats in charge, Harry Reid denies the American people the bipartisan diplomatic insurance policy they deserve,” a senior Republican Senate aide complained.
The aide suggested Republicans would use the issue of Iran to show how a GOP-run Senate would differ with the status quo.
“So the question really is, what kind of Senate would people rather have — one that puts politics over good policy, or one that holds Iran accountable and works overtime to prevent a world with Iranian nuclear weapons?” the aide asked.
A total of 59 senators — 16 Democrats and every Republican save two — have co-sponsored the sanctions bill from Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
Republicans need to gain six seats to win back the majority, something within their grasp this year. The party is a solid favorite to pick up seats in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana, and believes it could also secure wins in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina.
The administration has pleaded with members of both parties to hold back on sanctions against Iran, presenting the deal as a chance at history.
“We haven’t had an opportunity like this probably in the history of our dealings with Iran on its nuclear program, and quite frankly, we don’t know when we would have another one,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said this week after the interim deal with Iran went into effect on Monday. “All of our partners and we are united in the belief that we have an obligation to test this diplomatic moment, as difficult as it is, and to not do things in any of our capitals that would make that more difficult.”
The pending legislation calls for sanctions to kick in, if Iran reneges on the terms of the interim deal, which is scheduled to last six months. It would still be timely next year, after a new Congress is sworn in, however, because the bill also sets standards that any final deal must meet.
Specifically, the bill demands that the final deal “dismantle Iran's illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities … so that Iran is precluded from a nuclear breakout capability and prevented from pursuing both uranium and plutonium pathways to a nuclear weapon.”
Some experts say the bill, in effect, demands Iran be denied any right to enrich uranium, which negotiators say is unacceptable.
Obama has hinted zero enrichment isn't in the cards.
“Now, you’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu], that say we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation,” the president said in a speech at the Brookings Institution last month. “It is my strong belief that we can envision an end state that gives us an assurance that, even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they, as a practical matter, do not have breakout capacity.”
Not all Democrats are worried a Senate flip would doom the deal.
Iran hasn't emerged as an issue in midterm elections dominated by ObamaCare and the economy, so Republicans wouldn't be under great pressure to act if they do win. And if a final deal — however imperfect — is reached, Republicans might have a hard time defending a vote that the administration will most likely frame as a path to war.
“If against all odds, there is a deal, and we have some sort of peaceful, diplomatic track toward stopping Iran's nuclear program, it would seem to me that legislation that might blow up that process would be so problematic that, hopefully, the Republicans wouldn't even go there,” said Tommy Vietor, the former spokesman for Obama's National Security Council and now a principal with consulting firm Fenway Strategies.
McConnell has vowed to “continue to press the majority leader to allow a vote” on the Iran sanctions bill. But a McConnell spokesman on Wednesday pointedly refused to commit to a roll call if Republicans take over.
“While the Leader obviously supports the bipartisan legislation and believes it should be brought to the floor as soon as possible, it’s impossible to know what the situation with Iran will be a year from now, so I can’t give you an answer on what legislation will be needed or considered a year from now,” the spokesman told The Hill. “It’s just impossible to predict the unpredictable, so I’m sorry, I don’t have an answer for you on that.”