WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats on Tuesday put the brakes on new Iran sanctions legislation, ending for now a looming showdown between Congress and President Barack Obama over negotiations to prevent Tehran from having the capability to make a nuclear weapon.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a leading proponent of the legislation, says he remains skeptical a deal will materialize, but says he and nine other Democrats now won't push the bill at least until the end of March.
Menendez' concession to the White House is good news for Obama, who has threatened to veto any new sanctions legislation. At the same time, supporters of the bill say the letter signals the White House that Menendez and his Democratic colleagues do support the legislation and are willing to vote for new sanctions if Iran doesn't reach an agreement with the U.S. and its international partners.
Republicans could still move ahead on the bill, but without Democratic support, Congress would not have the votes needed to override an Obama veto.
The White House, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other international leaders have been lobbying U.S. lawmakers hard, arguing that if new sanctions legislation were passed, Iran could walk away from the talks and say the U.S. was negotiating in bad faith. Obama said the willingness of America's international partners to enforce existing sanctions against Iran also would wane.
Last week, House Speaker John Boehner fueled the rising friction with the White House by announcing that he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch opponent of Iran, to stand before Congress March 3 and push for new sanctions. The announcement caught the administration off-guard and Obama says he will not be meeting with Netanyahu when he visits Washington.
Boehner defended his decision again on Tuesday, saying the House is an equal branch of government and had the right to invite the Israeli leader to "talk to the members of Congress about the serious threat that Iran poses and the serious threat of radical Islam."
Time could be running out to reach a deal with Iran, which says its nuclear program is peaceful and exists only to produce energy for civilian use. Talks have been extended until July, with the goal of reaching a framework for a deal by the end of March.
Menendez, who drafted bipartisan legislation with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said at a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing that he and his Democratic colleagues had sent a letter to Obama saying they won't support passage of the bill until after March 24 — the date when a framework for a final deal is to be done.
"The legislation that Sen. Kirk and I have drafted would signal to the Iranian regime that there will be more consequences if they choose not to reach a final deal," Menendez said. "This morning, however, many of my Democratic colleagues and I sent a letter to the president, telling him that we will not support passage of the Kirk-Menendez bill on the Senate floor until after March 24 and only if there is no political framework agreement because, as the letter states, we remain hopeful that diplomacy will succeed in reversing Iran's ability to develop a nuclear weapon capability."
The letter was signed by Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York — the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate — Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
A senior Senate staffer said there was broad consensus among Democrats that the administration be afforded a bit more time to come to a deal before approving more sanctions even though they would take effect only if no agreement is reached. The staffer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.
Menendez made it clear, however, that he and his Democratic colleagues are not willing to hold off support for the bill forever. He said he remains deeply skeptical that Iran is committed to making the concessions necessary to demonstrate to the world that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful by March 24.
"In my view, we need Iran to understand that there are consequences if they fail to reach a comprehensive agreement," Menendez said.
A senior administration official told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama that the administration welcomed the move, adding that it sent "a very constructive signal" that lawmakers understand Obama's arguments for waiting.
The Kirk-Menendez bill, which has not been formally introduced, would not impose any new sanctions during the remaining timeline for negotiations. A draft of the bill says that if there is no deal by July 6, the sanctions that were eased during negotiations would be reinstated. After that, sanctions would be stepped up every month.
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the committee should delay Thursday's markup of the bill.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said, however, that he would like to see an Iran sanctions bill on the Senate floor right away.
"It would be my hope to see bipartisan agreement protecting our national security with sufficient margins to override a veto," he said. "But right now, Senate Democrats seem to be focusing more on partisan politics than on the threats to our national security."
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.