WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional hawks are struggling to build a veto-proof majority for new Iran sanctions despite wide discontent among lawmakers over the lack of progress from more than a year of nuclear talks with Iran, recently extended for seven more months.
One week after world powers and Iran failed to meet their own deadline for a deal, many in Congress are decrying the stalemate and what they perceive as widespread concessions by the United States and its partners for few steps by Iran to dismantle its nuclear program. Rhetoric aside, however, there has been no serious push yet in the Senate that would match a package of new sanctions approved by the House a year and a half ago. And even though Senate Republicans will be in the majority next month, there is no clarity on what is going to happen.
That's because President Barack Obama has threatened to veto any new sanctions legislation while American diplomats push for an accord that would see Iran accept stricter limits on its uranium enrichment activity for a gradual easing of the international sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. Sanctions proponents thus need 67 votes out of 100 in the Senate, and administration officials have been lobbying furiously to keep them below that threshold.
Incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., hasn't spoken on the subject since criticizing his Democratic rival, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, for standing in the way of sanctions legislation in early November. That was before the midterm elections in which Democrats received a drubbing. McConnell hasn't spelled out specific plans for when he can set the agenda.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a leading anti-Iran voice in the Capitol, said last month he was still working on building a veto-proof majority in the Senate, though he was more confident about sufficient support in the House.
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the outgoing Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said this week he is working with Kirk to redraft a bill they authored in 2013 which was stymied by administration pressure. It's unclear how many Democrats will support Menendez, whose relations with the White House and State Department have become increasingly acrimonious over Iran.
A minority of Republicans may balk, too. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible presidential candidate, expressed optimism Wednesday about the negotiations and with the constraints on Iran's nuclear program that U.S. and international negotiators have delivered. A year ago, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona joined Paul in declining to sign on to the Menendez-Kirk sanctions package.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the incoming Foreign Relations Committee chairman, is vowing to increase pressure on Iran but has focused his energy on assuring Congress has a say in a final deal and lawmakers lay down acceptable parameters for any agreement.
In any scenario, Republicans will need significant Democratic support to pass new sanctions on Iran, which says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Administration officials believe they have a short window to negotiate unimpeded by Congress. But they know they're on a short leash, with many Democrats under pressure from groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby, to join the sanctions push.
The top U.S. nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, and the Treasury Department's sanctions chief, David Cohen, are likely to hear a series of grievances when they brief leading senators behind closed doors Thursday. A number of Democratic senators were invited to the White House on Wednesday to hear the administration's case for patience.