January 29, 2015

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for Iran Sanctions Bill

Washington, DC – After a three week showdown between supporters of the nuclear negotiations with Iran and Senators bent on passing new sanctions that would upend the talks, the pro-diplomacy crowd won the day — for now.

 This morning, the Senate Banking Committee agreed to pass the sanctions out of committee by an 18 to 4 vote, overcoming one procedural hurdle for the bill to eventually receive a Senate vote. However, while sanctions proponents had aimed to pass the bill out of the full Senate by February, the sanctions are now unlikely to receive a full vote until at least late March.

In what can be described as a “tactical retreat,” a group of hawkish Democrats decided to only lend their support to the sanctions bill under the condition that they would not vote to pass the measure until at least March 24 — giving the President and P5+1 negotiators two months to hit their target for securing a “framework” agreement that would be the basis for a final nuclear agreement in June.

 The battle lines were first drawn in December of 2014, when incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell huddled with colleagues and decided to make passage of new Iran sanctions the number two priority for the new GOP-led Senate, right after a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline. The aim would be to move the sanctions through the committee process in the first month of session and get the sanctions passed by February.

But to achieve their goal, sanctions proponents would need to overcome those who helped to stop the sanctions from passing in 2014 –the Obama Administration who threatened to veto new sanctions; pro-diplomacy organizations, including NIAC, who had successfully worked to deploy their grassroots and advocacy muscle against sanctions on Capitol Hill; and an American public who would not countenance Washington hawks leading the country into another war of choice in the Middle East.

In 2014 the bill ultimately died when the Republican caucus demanded a vote in an overtly partisan letter that forced the hand of the bill’s biggest outside backer – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Already several Democrats who had been convinced to sign the bill had expressed second thoughts and indicated they opposed a vote. Once the Republican letter was sent, AIPAC decided it had to withdraw support or run the risk of unraveling its bipartisan credentials and damaging its increasingly strained relationship with the White House and Congressional Democrats. The bill’s leading Democrat, Senator Menendez, similarly took to the Senate floor and, in an otherwise defiant speech extolling the virtues of his sanctions bill, announced that he was retreating from the fight.

But 2015 was going to be different, thought the sanctions backers. Obama had extended the negotiations a second time in November, and even his supporters in Congress were thought to be losing patience. Harry Reid did not control the floor anymore and would not be able to block a vote. And with a new 54 vote majority, Republicans – and Senator Menendez – likely believed they could convince enough Democrats to sign onto the sanctions in order to pass the bill and even produce the 67 votes necessary to override a Presidential veto.

Fortunately for the negotiations, that is not how things played out. As expected, Menendez led the charge for new sanctions, along with Senator Mark Kirk. And, as happened last year, the President took to the podium in his State of the Union address to warn Congress he would veto the sanctions. Advocacy groups and grassroots organizations fanned out across the Hill to oppose the legislation. Presumptive 2016 challengers Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul criticized the bill, and U.S. negotiating partners in Europe publicly and privately warned Congress of the dire consequences sanctions would have for the talks.

Most importantly, the Senators who had signed onto the sanctions push last time only to be shocked by the backlash were not going to be fooled again. The lesson had been learned: signing onto Iran sanctions was no longer a free path to score political points and placate vocal constituents. Instead of being a political asset, sanctions had become a political liability. Instead of blindly signing onto sanctions bills supported by powerful groups like AIPAC, there was enough muscle countering the sanctions for Senators to take a step back and carefully consider the consequences.

 In the end, Menendez was unable to secure sufficient Democratic support necessary for his bill to avoid the same fate as last year without cutting a deal. In order to move forward with introducing the legislation and advancing it through committee, he crafted the letter that would pledge not to vote on the bill until March. He managed to get 9 colleagues to sign the letter and seven Democrats total have cosponsored the bill – nine less than last time. It was a defeat, yes, but it also guaranteed that the sanctions bill would live to fight another day.

If the President is unable to secure some form of a “framework” for a deal by March 24, the pressure will once again turn up for a sanctions vote. In the meantime, sanctions proponents will work to recruit as many cosponsors as possible—assuming that some Senators don’t go rogue and try to force a vote before the Menendez deadline and once again drive a partisan wedge through the process. Sanctions hawks will likely hope that the AIPAC conference, which will bring thousands of activists to lobby Congress in March, can produce enough pressure to convince Democrats to cosponsor the bill ahead of a vote later in the month. So, between now and then, it will be up to those supporting diplomacy to keep the bill from gaining momentum – and up to the negotiators to make progress in the talks. If not, the tactical retreat by sanctions supporters could pay off with a new sanctions vote in March.

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