Will Senate Dems really undermine the White House on Iran?

Senator Robert Menendez  (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

Senator Robert Menendez (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

The Washington Post reports today that Senate Dems really do appear to be forging ahead with plans to vote on new sanctions on Iran, even though the White House fears that this could undermine the prospects for a long-term deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

Administration officials are aggressively lobbying Senate Dems — including Robert Menendez and Chuck Schumer — not to hold any vote on sanctions right now, even if those sanctions would only take effect after the six month deadline of the temporary deal expires:

The administration contends that new sanctions not only would violate the terms of the interim agreement — which temporarily freezes Iran’s nuclear programs and modestly eases existing sanctions — but also could divide the United States from its international negotiating partners across the table from Iran and give the upper hand to Iranian hard-liners in upcoming talks.

“The purpose of sanctions from the outset was to create a dynamic so that you can get a change in policy from the Iran­ians,” David Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. said in an interview. “It’s not sanctions for the sake of having sanctions.”

The White House has organized a full-court press between now and the Senate’s return Dec. 9 to persuade lawmakers not to act.

There are a few ways I think this could play out.

One possibility: Harry Reid has referred the matter to the Senate Banking Committee, and the Committee could simply not act on any sanctions bill. The Committee’s chair, Senator Tim Johnson, has issued a statement that seemed sympathetic to the administration — his office said he supports a “diplomatic solution” and was “encouraged” by Obama’s announcement of a temporary deal — so it’s possible he’ll be receptive to the administration’s argument against a vote on new sanctions.

According to a source involved in the process, Senator Johnson is set for a private briefing next week on the Iran deal with Secretary of State John Kerry, and probably won’t make any decisions before then. “No decisions have been made,” the source says. Of course, if the committee didn’t act, there would be other ways for the Senate to pass new sanctions — such as via an amendment to a defense authorization bill — but this would make it hard for Obama to veto, and would entail Harry Reid directly bucking the administration in a very public, consequential way.

Another possibility: The Senate could pass a sanctions bill that is structured in a way that gives the White House the flexibility it needs. Here’s how this could work: The sanctions could be set up to kick in after the six month mark, but there could be a kind of escape hatch which allows for the sanctions to be deferred, if after the six months both sides agree a big, long term deal is within reach and want to keep talking. But hawks will loudly oppose this on the grounds that it could let Iran string the process out indefinitely.

A third possibility: Senate Dems could defer the vote, as per the scenario laid out by Dem Rep. and pro-Israel hawk Eliot Engel the other day. Dems would prepare a sanctions bill and threaten to vote on it if Iran is seen to be reneging on its end of the temporary bargain.

The last possibility, of course, is that the Senate could simply buck the administration’s request altogether and vote now on a full fledged sanctions bill that kick in after six months with no escape hatch (Obama could veto the bill, but this is a scenario the White House really doesn’t want, partly for the reasons outlined in the Post piece). This is a hard outcome to imagine. Senate Dems will insist that they are actually doing this to strengthen the administration’s position – not undermine it — by increasing the threat level associated with the failure to reach a long term deal.

But this is a tough case to make, given that the administration itself is asking Dems refrain from doing this, on the grounds that it could imperil the chances for a truly historic breakthrough. If it comes to this, Democrats will be asked to explain why the White House’s request for flexibility — given that it has come far enough to reach a temporary deal — is an unreasonable one.

If I had to guess right now, I’d say the second or third are the most likely outcomes. But there is a tremendous amount of pressure being brought to bear on Senate Dems from all sides, so the situation is very much in flux.

Also on The Plum Line

The Morning Plum: Obamacare gets another chance