WASHINGTON (AP) — Under pressure from the Obama administration, Senate Democrats who favor a new batch of sanctions on Iran signaled a willingness to hold off on levying penalties to give diplomatic negotiations a chance.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made clear that a vote on a package of penalties pushed by Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., wouldn't occur anytime soon despite a call for a vote from Republican leader Mitch McConnell and a daunting number of backers for the legislation — 59.
"We're going to wait and see how this plays out," Reid told reporters on Tuesday.
Obama has argued that a new round of penalties would derail sensitive talks with Tehran, and Reid ensured no Senate votes late last year during debate on a defense policy bill. The administration has faced a tougher task trying to persuade the growing number of more than a dozen Democrats who have signed onto the Menendez-Kirk legislation.
On Tuesday, officials had made some headway.
"I think that the Iran sanctions bill is meant to strengthen the president, not in any way impede the ongoing negotiation which should and hopefully will be successful," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the legislation. "So as long there's progress, the progress is meaningful and visible, there may not need to be a vote. I think it will depend on the developments ongoing over the next days and weeks."
Another backer of the sanctions measure, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said proponents and the administration share the same goal, ensuring that Iran doesn't become a nuclear state.
"As far as trying to work out a strategy with the administration so we have more harmony, let's talk about it. That's what's going on now," Cardin said.
Senate Democrats are scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the agenda for this year.
Over the weekend, the U.S. and its five negotiating partners - Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia - secured a deal with Iran spelling out how the Islamic republic will scale back its uranium enrichment program, halt progress at a plutonium plant and open up key sites to daily inspectors beginning next week. In exchange, world powers outlined how they will phase in $7 billion worth of relief from international sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.
Menendez and Kirk insist that sanctions forced Iran to negotiate and the United States should not let up. Their proposal would blacklist several Iranian industrial sectors and threaten banks and companies around the world with being banned from the U.S. market if they help Iran export any more oil.
The provisions would take effect if Tehran violates the six-month interim deal — set to begin Jan. 20 — or lets it expire without a final agreement.
More than a dozen Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, have signed onto the legislation along with 40-plus Republicans. They maintained that new penalties would increase pressure on Iran to make concessions and fully dismantle its entire nuclear program. Iran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
McConnell cited the bipartisan majority that could possibly overturn a presidential veto and vowed to press for a Senate vote.
"We believe that we ought to have that vote," the Kentucky Republican told reporters.
The issue has divided Democrats, with several signing onto the legislation, including Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. A number of committee chairmen have opposed the legislation.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who heads the Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Tuesday that the measure would be a "mistake" that could reduce the chances of negotiations succeeding. He stressed that if the talks failed, Congress would move swiftly to impose new penalties.
"Everybody knows that. I think the Iranians know that," he said.
Other Democrats indicated they would quickly back new sanctions but wanted to wait to see what happens in the talks.
"I'm a strong supporter of the current sanctions and I'm very willing to vote for additional sanctions if negotiations falter, but right now we're in the midst of the first serious discussion with them in a very long time about ending their quest for nuclear weapons," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who chairs the Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Middle East.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Secretary of State John Kerry has told Congress that new sanctions would undercut the negotiations and added, "I believe the secretary of state."
Not all Republicans are on board. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he is still looking at the legislation.