Democrats in Senate delay backing sanctions until March 24

Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Ten Senate Democrats told President Barack Obama they would not push for an Iran sanctions vote until after a midway deadline in Iran talks.

“In acknowledgement of your concern regarding congressional action on legislation at this moment, we will not vote for this legislation on the Senate floor before March 24,” said the letter sent Tuesday by Democrats who have in the past favored new Iran sanctions that President Obama opposes.

March 24 is the deadline for an outline of an agreement between the major powers and Iran that would swap sanctions relief for assurances that Iran is not advancing toward a nuclear weapon. The final deadline is June 30.

Most Senate Republicans and a number of Democrats back sanctions that would trigger if Iran walks away from the talks. Obama says they will unravel the negotiations and has pledged to veto them.

The delay buys Obama time, but also suggests that backers of sanctions are closing in on a veto-busting majority: There are 54 Republicans in the Senate majority, all of but two who are guaranteed to back sanctions. With ten Democrats ready to advance sanctions, backers need only sway three-to-five senators to get to 67, needed for a veto override.

“The support is there to give the president time to negotiate as long as there is an agreement to be reached,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), one of the letter’s signatories, told JTA.

The prospects of new sanctions legislations the U.S. House of Representatives are not yet certain. A similar bill passed the House overwhelmingly in the last Congress, but Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader, has said she would oppose any new sanctions, casting doubt on whether backers would get the two thirds they need to bust a veto.

The lead signature on the letter was by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is the coauthor of the sanctions bill with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and who has excoriated the administration for opposing it

In testimony to the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday, Anthony Blinken, a deputy secretary of state, said that the administration may ask for some flexibility on deadlines.

“As I sit here today, I can’t absolutely rule out that we would look for additional time,” he said. “For example, if we get to June and we have the core elements of a deal in place and were working on the technical details and it turns out that we need a little bit more time to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s, we may come and seek it.”

Cardin said it was critical to apply deadlines. “I would hope that we would hold firm to these dates because that holds the best possibility of an agreement,” he said.

Democrats opposed to new sanctions have been seeking alternative legislation to draw support away from the Menendez-Kirk bill. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on Tuesday introduced a non-binding resolution that would warn Iran that new sanctions would ensue if Iran walked away from talks.

“Enacting new sanctions before the end of the negotiating period would gravely undermine our efforts to reach an agreement with Iran,” Feinstein said in a statement. “For those who agree that the sanctions bill in the Banking Committee is detrimental, this resolution provides an option in support of diplomacy.”