The top Senate Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee said any effort by the Obama administration to convince lawmakers not to impose new sanctions on Iran is a "non-starter."
Sen. Bob Menendez, the outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, says time has run out for negotiations to roll back Iran’s nuclear program. The New Jersey Democrat pledged to try to move a bill imposing new sanctions on Tehran as soon as possible.
He, along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, is concerned that Iran is stretching out the talks to advance its efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
While Menendez welcomes input from the White House in crafting the bill, he said he would not entertain any administration arguments against new sanctions.
“We’re happy to work with the administration if they are willing to consider a calibrated sanctions bill, but if the answer is no to anything except these negotiations that have gone on for a year without much progress, then that’s a non-starter for me,” he told the Washington Examiner.
“I do think that prospective, calibrated sanctions are important to try to hopefully achieve the final goal,” he added.
Administration officials have spent the early part of the week briefing members of Congress about the status of the negotiations aimed at rolling back Iran’s nuclear program after extending the talks last week for another seven months to try to strike a final deal.
The officials are also warning lawmakers not to pass a new sanctions bill, arguing that doing so would irrevocably disrupt the ongoing negotiations with Tehran.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest last week said new sanctions would be “counterproductive.” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan on Monday told the Examiner that the White House position has not changed.
Menendez is brushing those warnings aside. On Tuesday he said he would try to add a sanctions measure to a must-pass bill during the lame-duck session, although he noted that he isn’t sure whether he will have an opportunity to do so.
“It depends on how the process unfolds” and whether Democratic leaders will allow senators to add amendments to key must-pass bills, he said.
If Menendez fails to push the sanctions through in the lame-duck session, Republicans are sure to take up a similar bill quickly in the new year, after they take control of the Senate.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill, the lead co-sponsor along with Menendez, last week predicted that enough Democrats would sign onto a sanctions bill in the new year to achieve a veto-proof majority in the Senate and the House. Already, Kirk said he had commitments from 17 Democrats to support the bill.
Sen. John McCain, another vocal advocate for additional sanctions and the incoming Armed Services Committee chairman, also said he has talked to several Democrats who support the bill.
“I think it’s clear that [Iran] is just dragging out these talks and they are continuing their progress toward nuclearization,” the Arizona Republican said.
Despite broad, bipartisan support for new sanctions, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has blocked the sanctions bill all year while the Obama administration continued to negotiate with Iran.
A Senate source suggested that the White House would be wise to get involved in helping to craft the sanctions bill instead of continuing to decry the idea, because passage is all but a foregone conclusion in the new year.
So far, however, the administration appears to be focusing its lobbying efforts on pleading with lawmakers to allow the negotiations to continue unfettered.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who also sits on the Foreign Relations panel, said he’s attended several administration briefings — and several more are scheduled this week — on the status of the negotiations with Iran.
“I’ve learned a lot more about where we are on the negotiations, so I’m going to reserve judgment until I can get a full explanation from the administration,” he told the Examiner.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., also declined to say whether he would support a new sanctions bill.
“I haven’t seen the proposal,” he said.