Will he surrender to Congress?

Photographer: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

Congress Moves Against Obama on New Iran Sanctions

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The White House and Senate are headed into a battle over whether to increase pressure on Iran. Lawmakers have completed a new bipartisan bill on Iran sanctions and the Senate intends to vote on it well before President Barack Obama's team finishes the current round of international nuclear negotiations.

Secretary of State John Kerry is in Geneva today meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif to push toward a comprehensive nuclear deal by the June 30 deadline, a cutoff that has now been extended a second and perhaps final time. The pressure is on and will only increase in the coming weeks, because Congress is set to insert itself into the debate whether the White House likes it or not.

The final language for the updated Iran sanctions bill by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez was agreed on this week, according to several lawmakers and senior staffers in both parties. The bill, which both senators want to pass as soon as possible, would impose several escalating rounds of increased sanctions on the Iranian economy that would begin on June 30 -- but only if Iran fails to sign on the dotted line of any negotiated agreement or fails to live up to whatever it stipulates.

The Obama team has made it clear they oppose Congress voting on a new law before the negotiations are complete, even though the actual sanctions implementation would be delayed. The new Republican Senate leadership, however, is committed to moving forward, setting up a political brawl that could peak just as the negotiations enter their crucial final stages.

“I don’t think the administration really would like for Congress to weigh in in any regard on any issue relating to foreign policy, but Congress will weigh in on this,” Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me Tuesday. “In the very near future there will be a markup on a bill that will give the Congress the ability to weigh in.”

In addition to the Kirk-Menendez bill, Corker is preparing his own legislation that would mandate that the Senate vote on a joint resolution of disapproval of any final nuclear deal with Iran. He feels this is necessary in case the White House decides not to designate any new Iran pact a "treaty," and thus avoid a ratification process in the Senate.

“It’s a bill that would allow Congress to have an up-or-down vote on any deal that’s finalized,” Corker said. “There are two tracks. They are parallel. They are different. We’ll assess what route to take.”

Negotiations are still taking place between Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats, as well as within the Senate Republican caucus, as to how the new Iran legislation drive will play out. But several staffers said that new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is committed to moving the Kirk-Menendez bill to the floor in late February or early March, with the exact timing depending on how things play out in the Senate overall.

Minority Leader Harry Reid has not weighed in publicly on the matter. He will have to choose between obstructing the bill’s progress, as a favor to the White House, or acquiescing to the large majority of senators who want to move forward against the administration’s wishes, even inside his own party. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has also quietly been lobbying Reid to get behind the new sanctions drive, several senior Senate staffers said. Reid's office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, told a meeting of Bloomberg reporters Tuesday that he favors moving forward with new sanctions legislation before the negotiations are complete. Many senators think the Iranians are using the long negotiations to change "conditions on the ground" to their advantage. 

“I think you have to continue to maintain that pressure.  And I worry that … the Iranian regime, they think that they’re scoring points, they’re getting momentum. They look at the international stage and frankly look a lot better maybe than they did months ago because they have been engaged in negotiations and dialogue,” Casey said. “So I worry that, over time, these sanctions, the current sanctions, have less significance.”

On the same day negotiations resumed in Geneva, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would be expanding its nuclear infrastructure by building two new civilian nuclear energy plants at its Bushehr facility.  

Casey also said he doesn’t buy the administration’s argument that a new sanctions bill in Washington could fracture the unity of the international coalition working to force Iran to make concessions in exchange for sanctions relief.

Some Republicans will be pushing for both the Kirk-Menendez and Corker bills to be moved through the Senate in one drive. Under this scenario, the Senate Banking Committee, under Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, would bring up the Kirk-Menendez bill and Corker would add his bill as an amendment. The whole package would then be sent to the floor.

“I think it’s going to be one bill, but we are going to need both," Senator James Risch, an Idaho Republican, told me. “Recent history tells us both are going to be needed badly.”

The banking committee will hold a hearing on Iran sanctions on Jan. 20.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain told me Tuesday that he wants to see the Corker bill moved first and separate from the Kirk-Menendez legislation. McCain thinks the Corker bill would be tougher for the administration to fight because it is simple and speaks to a clear principle, that the Senate have the prerogative to advise and consent on a major foreign policy deal.

“I want to see the requirement that [any nuclear deal with Iran] be treated as a treaty first, then worry about the additional sanctions,” McCain said. Also, he doesn’t want the Obama administration to be able to point to Congress as the spoiler if a final deal fails to materialize by the June 30 deadline.

The problem with McCain’s strategy is that the Corker bill, when it came up last year, got only Republican votes. Kirk and Menendez have been trying very hard to present the administration with a bipartisan front and craft legislation that can engender broad bipartisan (even veto-proof) support. Yet Corker’s bill risks alienating Democrats.

“Senators Menendez and Kirk are working together on text that is bipartisan and consistent with the Joint Plan of Action,” a framework reached in November 2013 between Iran and world powers, Menendez spokesman Adam Sharon told me. “The bill imposes no new sanctions and fully supports the continuation of negotiations through the P5+1’s self-imposed June 30th deadline, while spelling out in a logical, measured and clear manner what awaits Iran if negotiations fail.”

The Obama administration is never going to agree with Kirk and Menendez's assertion that their new bill helps rather than hurts the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Obama met with Congressional leaders Tuesday at the White House and told them point blank he was opposed to new sanctions legislation, even with the delay of implementation.

“The president also underscored the importance of our diplomatic efforts aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, reiterating his strong opposition to additional sanctions legislation that could derail the negotiations and isolate the United States from our international coalition,” the White House said in a read-out of the meeting.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power further explained the administration’s opposition Monday at an appearance with McConnell. “Some members of Congress believe that the time has come to ratchet up sanctions on Iran," she said. "We in the administration believe that, at this time, increasing sanctions would dramatically undermine our efforts to reach this shared goal.”  

Power pledged that if the negotiations fail or if Iran does not live up to its obligations, the administration is ready to join lawmakers in the effort to increase the pressure, but that any legislation right now would be counterproductive. The Iranians routinely  threaten that new sanctions legislation would tank the talks.

The administration has played a shell game with Congress over Iran sanctions for years now. Officials fight the sanctions bills until they become law, and then praise their effectiveness after the fact. Lawmakers, including Democrats such as Menendez, have lost trust in a White House they feel has not consulted them properly and has gone to great lengths to ensure they won’t have a veto over what most are certain will be a bad deal.

“The administration hasn’t consulted Congress properly on the Iran deal for a long time, so their concerns are falling on a lot of deaf ears here,” a senior Republican Senate aide told me.  “A substantial majority of the senate has wanted to speak on this issue for a very long time and the majority leadership wants to facilitate that as soon as possible.”

The administration, on the other hand, thinks lawmakers just want to poison the negotiations. Its priority is to preserve the chance to make a historic deal that reinvents the U.S.-Iran relationship. If Kerry gets a deal, White House officials want to present it to their critics as a fait accompli. The question is whether they have enough allies left on Capitol Hill to fend off the majorities in both parties that insist on being a part of that history, whichever way it breaks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net