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Expect Republicans to Add Teeth to Iran Sanctions Bill

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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When the Senate Banking Committee debates and almost certainly approves a new bill to increase pressure on Iran Thursday, some Republican senators are set to try and make the legislation's sanctions tougher. It’s a risky strategy that could jeopardize fragile Democratic support and complicate future attempts to overcome President Barack Obama’s threatened veto.

The Congressional path for new Iran sanctions was thrown into disarray this week when the lead Democrat, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Robert Menendez, sent a letter signed by nine other Democratic senators pledging to delay their support for any sanctions bill until late March, after the next deadline for negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries. Previously, Menendez and others had been promising to move forward much sooner, against the administration’s wishes.

Although this puts a full Senate vote on Iran sanctions on hold for now, the bill Menendez introduced with Republican Mark Kirk is still expected to pass by a large margin in the Banking Committee, the potentially last Congressional vote on Iran sanctions for the next eight weeks. The measure would increase economic penalties against Iran automatically at the end of June should Iran not agree to a deal or live up to its commitments.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby told me that he expects Republicans to change the bill during Thursday's markup process to make it stronger. In his view, the bill should move out of committee now because he doubts the Obama administration will make progress with Iran between now and the next deadline in late March.

“The stronger the sanctions, the clearer the message to Iran. The sooner the better. Why delay it?” Shelby said, adding that he was skeptical of the current talks in Geneva. “I hope something substantive comes out those negotiations, but I’m not holding my breath.”

A senior senate aide shared with me a list of the proposed amendments that had been filed for Thursday’s markup, and there were over a dozen amendments filed by conservative Republicans David Vitter, Pat Toomey and freshman Tom Cotton. Different proposed amendments would mandate sanctions be imposed sooner, remove or alter the president’s waiver authority, require that Iran dismantle its nuclear infrastructure, make it more difficult for the administration to take countries off the state sponsors of terrorism list, assert Congressional support for Israel’s right to defend itself, and mandate a Congressional vote on the deal.

Only a few of those filed amendments will actually get a vote at Thursday’s markup. But the ones that are not given a hearing this week will surely come up again when the Kirk-Menendez bill eventually comes to the Senate floor. They represent the sentiment in some parts of the Republican caucus that the current bill is too weak.

John Cornyn, the Senate majority whip, told me that the Republican leadership has not made a decision yet about when to move on the bill. “We’re waiting for the Senate Banking Committee to vote a bill out," he said. "That will determine the pace of floor action."

Menendez's move to delay the bill was not an effort to submarine his own handiwork but to keep Democrats in support of sanctions legislation. When the previous Kirk-Menendez bill was introduced in the last Congress, 17 Democrats were co-sponsors. This week, Menendez was able to get only seven Democrats to sign on. Menendez promised Tuesday that his request to delay the floor action until late March would be the last delay.

“Clearly, the administration made a compelling and strong case they wanted the time,” Menendez told reporters Tuesday. “It’s our intention to move forward at that time but we’ve given them the time they’ve asked for. I think that shows a pretty good effort to be reasonable." He added that he didn't want a bill to be an excuse for the administration should it fail to reach an Iran deal.

Keeping Democrats on the bill is crucial for its success, a sentiment acknowledged by Menendez’s counterpart, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker.

“What you don’t want Iran to see is that there’s some partisan split over the issue of Iran," Corker said Tuesday, warning that Menendez’s approach might achieve exactly that. “If we were to vote on a bill on the floor and it got 53 [all Republican] votes, and Iran was watching, that’s not where we as nation need to be.”

Corker supports it but prefers his own yet-to-be-introduced bill, which he is crafting behind the scenes with fellow Republican Lindsey Graham. That bill would have no sanctions, but would require a Senate vote on any Iran deal if and when the administration successfully completes the negotiations.

Corker said he won’t try to attach his bill to Kirk-Menendez on Thursday, although another senator may try to introduce similar language. Corker also says he is not working against Kirk-Menendez, and that when the whole issue comes to the floor in late March, the Senate will have the opportunity to debate both approaches.

Graham is less shy about his overall goal, which is to reduce the Senate’s focus on sanctions and dig in on the demand for an approval vote on the deal, which he argues is more likely to get bipartisan support. “I support the sanctions bill but I am willing to forgo sanctions with the understanding that we are going to pass Corker-Graham in a bipartisan fashion,” he told me Tuesday.  

Some close watchers of the Iran-sanctions debate worry that the latest Republican efforts risk pushing away Democrats. Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said that while the amendments could improve the bill, they could also distract from the overall goal.

“What Republicans and others need to keep focus on is that this is an attempt to continue to hold the administration’s feet to the fire," he said, and send a message both to Obama and Iran's Supreme Ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that "deadlines are deadlines.”

The Obama administration is benefitting from the Iran-sanctions chaos on Capitol Hill. It won a battle by securing a delay, but the war over the legislation is far from over. If Republicans and Democrats are to have any chance of presenting a unified front on the issue, they must coalesce on one strategy for  asserting oversight. They now have two months to figure it out.

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