December 6, 2013

Multiple Democrats on Capitol Hill are worried that House Democratic leaders are close to joining with House GOP leaders to support a bipartisan measure that could undermine the White House’s efforts to reach a long term deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program, I’m told by sources involved in discussions.

The worry is that Dem Rep. Steny Hoyer, the number two House Dem, may join with GOP Rep. Eric Cantor on a resolution or bill that will either criticize the current temporary deal with Iran, or call for a new round of sanctions, or set as U.S. policy some strict parameters on a final deal with Iran, such as opposition to any continued uranium enrichment, House Democratic aides say. House Dems and outside foreign policy observers have communicated such worries to Hoyer’s office, sources add.

Hoyer’s office confirmed to me that Cantor had produced a bill and shared it with him, but declined to discuss details. “Cantor has a bill, and it’s being reviewed by our office,” Hoyer spokesperson Stephanie Young said. “No decisions have been made.” Spokespeople for Cantor didn’t respond.

Any resolution or bill along these lines that has the support of any House Dem leaders would increase the pressure on Senate Democrats to pass a measure of their own, which the White House opposes. And some fear that a measure in the House itself — even if the Senate didn’t act — could have an adverse impact on international talks.

According to reports in the Hill and National Journal, Cantor and House GOP leaders are looking for a way to express opposition to, and put obstacles in the way of, the deal the Obama administration is pursuing. But now that a bill has been produced, and could be joined by Hoyer, that significantly ratchets up worries that Congress could very well act in a way that scuttles hopes for a long term deal.

Those wary of a possible Hoyer-Cantor measure point out that the two have previously collaborated on measures relating to U.S. policy in the middle east.

Senate Democrats are already debating whether to vote on a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran that would take hold after the six month expiration of the temporary deal. But the White House has called on Dems to hold off, arguing that passing sanctions legislation could make it harder for both sides to continue negotiating after the six month mark if a deal is close. The administration also fears sanctions legislation could give Iran a way of arguing — and could create suspicions among the U.S.’s international partners — that the U.S. is negotiating in bad faith.

If the GOP-controlled House passes something with the support of someone like Hoyer, it could make it harder for Senate Dems to resist pressure to act. Indeed, it could exacerbate divisions among Senate Dems over how to proceed. It could strengthen the hands of those — such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez — who want to pass something right now.  Senator Harry Reid appears to want to grant the White House the flexibility it has asked for, but bipartisan movement in the House could intensify the pressure on him to allow a vote on something the White House doesn’t want.

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UPDATE: Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, emails over the following response:

“If Hoyer is teaming up with Cantor, then this certainly comes across as him betraying the White House and the US negotiators. Nothing undermines the President’s leverage more than being undercut by his own party members in Congress.”

UPDATE II: Steny Hoyer spokesperson Stephanie Young adds more:

“Mr. Cantor has a resolution. It’s being reviewed and absolutely no decisions have been made. It’s preposterous to think that Mr. Hoyer would sign on to any resolution he believes would undermine the White House or negotiations.”

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.