By Julian Pecquet and Jeremy Herb - 02/02/14 02:07 PM EST
Proponents of Iran sanctions have all but abandoned their search for a highly symbolic 60th co-sponsor who would give their bill a filibuster-proof majority and reverse the push against immediate action.
The number of Democrats and Republicans on the bill has been stuck at 59 for more than three weeks, with the White House effectively locking up the Democratic Caucus with a threat to veto a bill it says could doom nuclear talks and precipitate war.
The bill's champions profess not to be worried. They say they can always count on the Iranians to say or do something so outrageous that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will have no choice but to bring the vote to the floor, where they expect it to pass overwhelmingly.
“The Iranians are pretty much our chief allies on this,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who wrote the bill with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “They can't help themselves... In the end the Iranians will help me out.”
To make his case, Kirk has been highlighting controversial comments from the Iranians, notably President Hassan Rouhani's assertion last week that Iran would not destroy any of its centrifuges. And on Thursday, Kirk was on the Senate floor warning his colleagues about Iran's decision to send warships to the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.
“The record in the past is that dictators almost always undercut the U.S. politicians who sided with them,” he told The Hill. “The Iranians have really undercut the Obama administration.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a chief backer of the effort, said he's still trying to convince more members to get on board, to no avail.
“We’re working on that, but Sen. Reid has aligned himself with Obama on this,” Graham said. “The Obama administration has won the day when it comes to the Senate Democrats’ willingness to send a clear message to the Iranians.”
Graham has also been urging the Republican-led House to move first to help break the logjam, but House leaders are reluctant to take any action that would make Iran sanctions a partisan issue.
Democrats who back the current interim deal say the administration has managed to dodge the bullet – for now at least.
“I think the momentum is clearly moving away from a vote on the Senate floor,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I'm not as worried as I was about that just a month ago, and I think the president – both publicly and privately – has been very clear about how strongly he feels about this.”
Democrats with strong pro-Israel records say they're not being lobbied to get on board after making their position clear.
“I'd feel very comfortable voting for sanctions if the discussions falter,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
“But as long as we're in the discussions, we need to give diplomacy a chance.”
He said he's keeping a close eye on what's happening, both through the Obama administration's briefings and regular reports from the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“We have to just to continue to monitor [Iran] very closely,” he said.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said calls for him to get on board have also dried up.
“They know my position,” he said.
Cardin, an original co-sponsor, played down any divisions with the White House.
“I don't see a difference between what we're doing and what the president's doing,” he told The Hill.
“From Day One – and I think Sen. Menendez feels the same way – we have not pushed for a vote,” he said. “What we've said is, we want to make sure that Iran understands that if it deviates there will be stronger sanctions, and it will be immediate.”
Menendez has not publicly demanded immediate action on his legislation. But he remains convinced that it could reinforce the administration's bargaining position and is holding a hearing on Tuesday with top administration negotiators about the interim deal that went into effect on Jan. 20.
Kirk said Obama and Reid won't be able to postpone a vote forever – especially in an election year when pro-Israel lobbies have made passage of the bill a priority.
“I think in the end,” he said, “they're going to want to go home to the elections having cast a pretty strongly pro-Israel vote in favor of sanctions on Iran.”