WASHINGTON (AP) — Some members of Congress are struggling to build a veto-proof majority for new sanctions against Iran despite wide discontent among lawmakers over the lack of progress from more than a year of nuclear talks with the Middle Eastern country, recently extended for seven more months.
A week since world powers and Iran failed to meet their own deadline for a deal, many in Congress are decrying the stalemate and their perception of widespread concessions by the United States and its partners for few steps by Iran to dismantle its nuclear program. Rhetoric aside, however, there has been no serious push yet in the Senate that would match a package of new sanctions approved by the House a year and a half ago. And even though Senate Republicans will be in the majority next month, there is no clarity on what is going to happen.
That’s because President Barack Obama has threatened to veto any new sanctions legislation while American diplomats push for an accord that would see Iran accept stricter limits on its uranium enrichment activity for a gradual easing of the international sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. Sanctions proponents thus need 67 votes out of 100 in the Senate, and administration officials have been lobbying furiously to keep them below that threshold.
Incoming Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t spoken on the subject since criticizing his Democratic rival, Sen. Harry Reid, for standing in the way of sanctions legislation in early November. That was before the midterm elections in which Democrats received a drubbing. McConnell hasn’t spelled out specific plans for when he can set the agenda.
Sen. Mark Kirk, a leading anti-Iran voice in the Capitol, said last month he was still working on building a veto-proof majority in the Senate, though he was more confident about sufficient support in the House.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the outgoing Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said this week he is working with Kirk to redraft a bill they authored in 2013 which was stymied by administration pressure. It’s unclear how many Democrats will support Menendez, whose relations with the White House and State Department have become increasingly acrimonious over Iran.
A minority of Republicans may balk, too. Sen. Rand Paul, a possible presidential candidate, expressed optimism Wednesday in the negotiations and with the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program that US and international negotiators have delivered. A year ago, Sen. Jeff Flake joined Paul in declining to sign on to the Menendez-Kirk sanctions package.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the incoming Foreign Relations Committee chairman, vowed to increase pressure on Iran but has focused his energy on assuring Congress has a say in a final deal and that lawmakers lay down acceptable parameters for any agreement.
In any scenario, Republicans will need significant Democratic support to pass new sanctions on Iran, which says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Administration officials believe they have a short window to negotiate unimpeded by Congress. But they know they’re on a short leash, with many Democrats under pressure from groups like the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC to join the sanctions push.
The top US nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, and the Treasury Department’s sanctions chief, David Cohen, are likely to hear a series of grievances when they brief leading senators behind closed doors Thursday. A number of Democratic senators were invited to the White House on Wednesday to hear the administration’s case for patience.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press