- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Democratic leaders’ desire to avoid a potentially embarrassing vote on Iran sanctions is tying the Senate into procedural knots, with the latest victim being a bill that would boost veterans benefits.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has said he wants to give President Obama a free hand to conduct diplomacy with Iran, and doesn’t want to see Congress even vote on the issue. If stiffer sanctions were put to a vote, analysts said they would likely pass, an outcome that could undercut the president’s softer position.

But Republicans have insisted members of Congress deserve a chance to weigh in on the issue, and have called for votes on several major bills over the last few months — leaving Mr. Reid tied in procedural knots.

This week, Mr. Reid is struggling to figure out how to advance the veterans policy bill, which would boost retirement pay and expand health and education services for former troops. But GOP lawmakers have said they want to vote on Iran sanctions as part of the amendment process.

“Republicans say they want to help veterans. Strange way of showing it,” Mr. Reid said Wednesday. “We introduce a bill that would do just that, and Republicans immediately inject partisan politics into the mix, insisting on amendments that have nothing to do with helping veterans.”

But Republicans counter that Mr. Reid has blocked a vote on Iran long enough, and said if a vote were held, there would be overwhelming bipartisan support for stiffer sanctions.

“There is no excuse for muzzling the Congress on an issue of this importance to our own national security, to the security of Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, and to international stability more broadly,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Unlike the House, where the majority party can control which amendments reach the floor, the Senate has had a tradition of free-flowing debate where lawmakers are allowed to offer amendments on the big issues of the day.

But Mr. Reid has increasingly turned to parliamentary tactics to block out other amendments — including those coming from Democrats — to prevent that.

Last year, Mr. Reid short-circuited the floor debate on the annual defense policy bill to prevent the Senate from voting on amendments dealing with Iran and with Obamacare.

Republicans say the additional sanctions would only go into effect if Iran pulls out of negotiations or fails to hold up its end of the bargain struck with international negotiators last year that required Iran to stop enriching uranium beyond levels required for energy purposes, begin diluting its existing stockpile of nuclear weapon-level uranium, not construct more centrifuges to enrich uranium and open its facilities to rigorous inspection.

“If Iran walks away from the negotiations because we’ve passed prospective legislation as an insurance policy to make sure they are serious about a real, verifiable agreement that stops their nuclear weapons program, then frankly we know that they have been playing us,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican. “The reality is if they’re serious, they shouldn’t care if we put an insurance policy out there.”

Ultimately, the fight comes down to a dispute on the best way to negotiate.

By not passing sanctions legislation, Mr. Obama is trying to negotiate with Iran without any leverage on his side, said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute.

“What this bill does is add leverage if Iran doesn’t come to an agreement in six months. The Obama administration says that’s unfair, but basically it’s a fight about leverage,” he said. “The Obama administration seems to want to have a negotiation without leverage, but senators are second guessing Obama’s strategy on both sides of the aisle.”

For their part, veterans’ groups questioned why their priorities were getting mixed in with Iran issues.

“The Senate can debate various aspects of it, and that’s understandable, but it cannot lose focus on the matter at hand: helping military personnel,” American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a statement. “We can deal with Iran — or any other issue unrelated specifically to veterans — with separate legislation.”

The Iran sanctions language included in the GOP proposal from Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, is the same as a bipartisan bill proposed last year from Sens. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, and Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, according to a member of Mr. Burr’s staff.

The House already voted in July prior to the start of negotiations to impose strict sanctions that would essentially prevent Iran from selling any oil abroad.

Mr. Rubin said he believes Congress could pass sanctions because members of Congress have noticed Iranian leaders publicly bad-mouthing the negotiations.

“What Obama basically did was offer a 5-year-old dessert first, and then hope that he’ll want to eat the vegetables at dinner,” he said. “The GOP are pushing this because it’s also good politically, but the fact of the matter is there’s deep unease about Obama’s strategy.”

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