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Kirk: Obama Can’t Stop Iran Sanctions

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Congress is going to move forward with Iran sanctions legislation sooner rather than later, and there’s nothing the Barack Obama administration can do to stop it. That's the word from one of the two authors of the bill that passed the Senator Banking Committee today.

Illinois Republican Mark Kirk told me in an interview today that even if the Senate delays until late March on voting on the new sanctions bill he crafted with Democrat Robert Menendez, his party's leadership is committed to moving forward and he is confident the Senate will pass it. This despite repeated warnings from the Obama administration that it would blow up ongoing negotiations with Iran, fracture the international sanctions coalition and provoke a presidential veto.

“The notion that the Iran sanctions effort can be stopped was killed by the American people at the ballot box when they elected a Republican Senate,” Kirk said. “This is going to move forward in the Senate regardless of what the president’s feelings are on it.”

Menendez, without consulting Kirk, rounded up 10 Senate Democrats earlier this week to sign a letter pledging not to vote on new Iran sanctions until after March 24, the administration’s self-imposed deadline for a political framework agreement with Iran. Kirk said he was against the delay but ultimately isn’t in charge of when the full Senate will vote.

“I will be following the leader, it’s Mitch McConnell’s call. But we are not going to turn to the Harry Reid policy of indefinitely delaying a vote," he said, referring to the Senate majority and minority leaders. 

The banking committee approved the Kirk-Menendez bill 18-4 after some debate Thursday, and several Democrats voted for the bill, including Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Chuck Schumer, Jon Tester and Mark Warner. Heitkamp, Tester and Warner didn't cosponsor the bill or sign the Menendez letter, a sign that Democratic support for the bill is slowly but surely increasing, although is not yet strong enough to override a veto. Kirk said he was  working toward the "magic 67 vote majority.”

Obama pledged to take his case against the sanctions legislation to the American people if Congress can’t be deterred. Kirk told me his office will also be working to urge constituents in key states to keep the pressure on Democrats including Menendez and Schumer, who hail from New Jersey and New York, respectively: “I’m going to be working in New York and New Jersey to make sure they stay as strong supporters of this legislation.” 

Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, has a separate bill  that would not contain new sanctions but would mandate the Senate get an up-or-down vote on any final deal with Iran. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has said he would trade the sanctions bill for that approach, which he feels could get more bipartisan support. Kirk said he supports the Corker idea and they are not mutually exclusive.

Kirk said he agrees with Obama that there’s a “less than 50-50 chance” that the nuclear negotiations between Iran and P5+1 countries will succeed. But he said the administration’s overall warming of relations with Iran was wrongheaded because Iran continues to expand its nuclear infrastructure, export terrorism and work against U.S. interests across the Middle East.

“The notion the Obama administration has put forward of the Iranians helping us in Syria in Iraq is like hiring the local town pyromaniac psycho to serve on the volunteer fire department,” he said.

Kirk said he has been maintaining a list of Americans killed by Hezbollah, which he called “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian intelligence services.” He plans to read that list aloud on the Senate floor.

Kirk had particularly unkind words for the administration’s negotiating team, led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, which he called  “an ideal team for running a Democratic primary for Congress in Massachusetts.”

There’s no direct interaction between Kirk and the White House at this point, he said. Menendez also told reporters this week that the White House doesn’t call him anymore.

“I’m very tired of being seen as the enemy by the administration,” Kirk told me. “They tend to only talk to people that agree with them. They like to stay only inside their left-wing appeasement bubble, only talking to left-wing appeasers.”

Kirk, Menendez and their supporters are feeling new confidence in the wake of the Banking Committee’s vote, feeling vindicated after Obama's verbal assault on the bill in his State of the Union message. But they shouldn’t count their chickens just yet; if the administration is able to strike a deal with Tehran by March, their sanctions drive could hit another big roadblock.

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