Republicans, AIPAC weigh support for bill ‘fixing’ Iran deal

Democratic-backed Senate legislation that hopes to break party lines would boost aid to Israel, seek assurances on accord’s implementation

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., right, accompanied by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., listening during a news conference about legislation on Iran policy and Middle East security, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington (Evan Vucci/AP Images/JTA)
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., right, accompanied by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., listening during a news conference about legislation on Iran policy and Middle East security, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington (Evan Vucci/AP Images/JTA)

Top Republicans and Jewish leaders are considering giving their backing to a Democratic-sponsored bill that aims to address supposed defects in the nuclear agreement with Iran.

The Iran Policy Oversight Act of 2015, introduced October 1, brings together Senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Chuck Schumer (D-New York) — two of just four Senate Democrats who joined Republicans in opposing the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal when it was under congressional review — with seven Democrats who backed the deal.

The bill would increase defense assistance to Israel to counter potential Iranian conventional threats, enhance congressional oversight of the implementation of the deal and expedite new sanctions against Iran should it be implicated in terrorism.

Al Monitor, a Middle East news website, reported that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, who has cooperated with Cardin in the past on Iran issues, was reviewing whether to join sponsorship of the bill. Corker’s backing would pave the way to broader bipartisan support.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee was also reviewing the bill to consider whether to lend it its backing, an AIPAC official told JTA. AIPAC vehemently opposed the deal when it was under congressional review. J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle east policy group, said in a statement that it backs the bill.

“Comprehensive reporting on Iran’s activities, enhancement of the President’s existing non-nuclear sanctions powers and further strengthening already unprecedented US security and intelligence cooperation with Israel are steps that will bolster the agreement and its critical objective of ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon,” J Street said in a statement.

The bill’s sponsors also include five Jewish senators: In addition to Cardin and Schumer, who will vie next year for the caucus leadership, the nine sponsors include Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Wyoming), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut).

The other backers of the bill are Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), who does not consider himself Jewish but who cited his mother’s Jewish heritage in explaining his backing for the Iran nuclear deal; Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), who has close ties to New Jersey’s Jewish community; Chris Coons (D-Delaware), and Mark Warner (D-Viginia).

“Previously, US policy toward Iran was so effective because of the congressional unity that brought Democrats and Republicans together on this issue,” said Cardin, who is the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We as Democratic opponents and supporters of the Iran agreement are taking the first step forward to chart a new course that borrows from past practice.”

With Republicans opposing the Iran deal, Democrats were subject to heavy lobbying from the White House to back the deal and from opponents of the deal, including AIPAC and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to help kill it.

Politico reported Thursday that Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada), the minority leader, twice appealed to the White House to explicitly pledge to kill any Palestinian bid at the United Nations to achieve statehood recognition as a means of assuaging pro-Israel groups that would be angered by Democratic backing for the deal. The Obama administration never pledged to stop such a bid, although its officials have said they view bids for statehood outside the framework of negotiations as “counterproductive.”

Separately, the US House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill that would delay sanctions relief until Iran paid out court-won awards to victims of Iranian-backed terrorism, principally 241 US Marines killed in an attack on barracks in Beirut in 2003 carried out by Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy.

The bill was approved along partisan lines, with Democrats accusing Republicans of attempting to stymie the Iran deal after the deadline for Congress to kill the it lapsed on September 17.

“Let’s be honest: This bill is not really about helping these victims,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and among the minority of Democrats who opposed the deal, speaking against the bill on the House floor. “It’s about exploiting their plight and their tragedy to make a political splash.”

Also Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee approved a parallel bill that would link sanctions relief to Iran’s payout to its terror victims, and the US Supreme Court said it would consider Iran’s appeal against earlier decisions that it must make such payments.

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