WASHINGTON — After days in which political insiders here tried to write the obituary for the Senate bill that would impose additional sanctions on a recalcitrant Iran, Republican senators were poised Thursday to renew their push on the legislation. In a letter, Senate Republicans called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to allow the bill, which has driven a wedge between some Democrats and the administration, to come to a vote.
The Daily Beast reported that Republican senators were planning on utilizing procedural tools on Thursday to pressure Reid into allowing the bipartisan Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act to be voted upon. The Obama administration has been adamant in its opposition to the legislation, which was initiated in December by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
The bill currently has 59 co-sponsors, hovering just below a veto-proof majority in the upper house. While 13 Democrats support the bill, a number have chosen to sit on the fence in a struggle that pits the administration against powerful lobbying groups such as AIPAC.
Although the bill is on the Senate calendar, Reid has refused thus far to schedule a vote on the legislation, which has driven a wedge among Democrats who hold a thin majority in the upper house. In their letter, Senate Republicans called on Reid to bring the bill to a vote – not just because of the significance of the legislation itself, but as a matter of democratic principle.
“You have already taken unprecedented steps to take away the rights of the minority in the Senate,” the senators wrote to Reid. “Please do not take further steps to take away the rights of a bipartisan majority as well.”
In the letter, the senators also noted that “the American people – Democrats and Republicans alike – overwhelmingly support this legislation.”
Senators can use the floor to publicly call out Reid and the Democratic leadership for refusing to allow a vote, or can tack the bill on as an amendment to other pieces of legislation deemed important by the Senate leadership. They can also refuse to support legislation if the bill is not brought to a vote.
In last week’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama warned that “if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.”
Supporters say the bill reinforces rather than undermines presidential authority by allowing the president to waive future sanctions either by certifying Iranian compliance with the interim agreement with Iran reached in Geneva late last year, or in the event that a final agreement is reached. At the same time, it sets basic terms for a deal, mandating that a final arrangement must dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
The bill’s reported demise came following repeated lobbying efforts both by the administration as well as by a coalition of lobbying groups including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, the National Iranian American Council, the American Security Project and the Atlantic Council, coordinated under the leadership of the Ploughshares Fund.
Under pressure from the administration, at least four Democratic co-sponsors of the bill, including Chris Coons (D-DE), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) all have indicated that they are willing to put the bill on ice – at least for the time being.
In an interview with MSNBC last month, Manchin said that he “did not sign it with the intention that it would ever be voted upon or used upon while we were negotiating.”
Saying that it would be good to “give peace a chance,” Manchin said he co-sponsored the bill “because I wanted to make sure the president had a hammer if he needed it and showed them how determined we were to do it and use it if we had to.”
Republicans will attempt to force Democrats to stake a position on record, creating a catch-22 situation for the Democratic legislators who will have to vote against a bill they co-sponsored or go against a Democratic administration.
Iran on January 20 stopped enriching uranium to 20 percent and started neutralizing its existing stockpile of that grade — just steps away from weapons material — in order to fulfill commitments reached under an interim deal in Geneva. The US and the European Union also lifted some sanctions in response to the Iranian moves.
The interim Geneva accord will last for six months as Iran and the six-nation group — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — negotiate a final deal. Those talks are to start February 18 in Vienna.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.