- The Washington Times - Friday, April 23, 2010

The House voted Thursday to go to conference with the Senate on a bill to impose new sanctions on Iran - marking the first time in months that Congress has embraced a conference committee, the normal procedure that has been anything but normal recently.

The House voted 403-11 to set a nonbinding deadline of May 28 for negotiators to return with a final sanctions bill, though they hope for even speedier action on a measure that would penalize companies that deal with Iran’s oil sector and would also expand penalties to include U.S. companies whose foreign subsidiaries do business with Iran.

“We cannot wait any longer,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who stressed the urgency of combating a nation whose suspected nuclear arms program may be three years away from producing a stockpile of weapons and the means to deliver it.

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen was one of more than a dozen House negotiators named to the conference committee - the Senate named seven conferees last month - but that’s no guarantee they will meet. And if they do, lawmakers might be forgiven if they are a bit rusty about the ins-and-outs of conference committees. It will be the first such conference since December and only the second in six months.

Conferences are when House and Senate negotiators meet to hammer out differences and write the final version of a bill, which must them pass the House and Senate in the same form.

In lieu of conferences, the House and Senate have been sending bills and amendments back and forth, with Democratic leaders negotiating final deals behind closed doors.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, told reporters Thursday morning he wants to see a return to conference committees, and said that will happen on a number of bills coming up. He also said he had wanted to see the health care bill get passed by conference, rather than through the reconciliation process.

“I am one who wants to return to the confernece system,” he said, blaming Republicans for blocking conferences.

But Republicans said they support conferences, arguing that’s the way final bills should be hammered out.

“Good process leads to good policy. The reason they avoided a conference on health care is because they knew the American people were opposed to the bill,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

If Congress is serious about conference committees, the Iran sanctions bill is a likely candidate. Both chambers passed their versions overwhelmingly, and Republicans and Democrats said Thursday that congressional action can bring pressure on Iran’s government.

The White House is likely to weigh in as well, asking for waivers and other protections that would limit Congress’ influence on the president’s current strategy for trying to obtain multilateral sanctions.

In some ways, the debate alone has already succeeded. Several lawmakers pointed to oil companies that have halted business with Iran in recent months as evidence companies believe sanctions are coming.

Voting against the motion to set the nonbinding deadline on negotiations were seven Democrats and four Republicans.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat, said the major powers have not given diplomacy enough of a chance to work, and said he worries sanctions will fail to sway average Iranians the right way.

“Will this cause them to turn against their government, or will it cause them to turn against the United States,” he said.

But Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, said diplomacy has failed because Iran has refused to engage, not because the U.S. or its allies have failed to try.

Republicans, meanwhile, said Iran’s continued pursuit of a weapons program shows President Obama’s engagement strategy hasn’t worked.

“Fifteen months and countless missed deadlines later, the administration’s strategy has failed,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

Speaking on ABC’s “The View” program, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said he thinks international sanctions on Iran will come through soon.

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