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Some In Pro-Israel Lobby Argue Democrat’s Hesitation Will Benefit Sanctions Bill

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Sen. Bob Menendez said Tuesday he wouldn’t support a vote on his own co-authored bill before the March negotiation deadline.

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Gary Cameron / Reuters

WASHINGTON — After Senate Democrats made it clear on Tuesday that they are not willing to vote for a controversial Iran sanctions bill until after a March deadline in the nuclear negotiations, some pro-Israel activists are arguing that the move is not a setback for sanctions, but a boost.

“This was a very good day for those who support this legislation, and for Senator Menendez as a leader in his caucus,” said a source close to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has lobbied for the Iran sanctions bill co-authored by Sens. Mark Kirk and Bob Menendez.

“What you see is a clear message being sent to the president that despite your opposition to this, we stand in support of the bill — and if there is no satisfactory outcome by March, we will vote for this on the floor,” the source continued. “And in the meantime, there is a mark-up and vote in committee coming, and you will see bipartisan support for the bill as it makes it way through the process.”

“Contrary to those suggesting this was some kind of delay or set back, what you see is strong bipartisan momentum toward veto-proof numbers and in support of the legislation as it moves through the process and toward the floor,” the source said.

AIPAC, which has traditionally been Washington’s most powerful pro-Israel group, has pushed the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, which would impose new sanctions on Iran in the event of the talks failing. Last year, the group was seen as alienating many of its contacts in Congress when a similar battle over last year’s version of the Kirk-Menendez bill was playing out. The fight over the bill last year happened under different circumstances, especially since there was no real risk for Democrats of having to vote on it since the Democratic leadership would not schedule a vote.

This year, Democrats hesitated on the legislation, putting the touted bipartisan nature of the sanctions push into question. President Obama has said that he will veto the bill if it comes across his desk. Menendez, the co-author of the bill, and nine other Senate Democrats sent a letter to the president on Tuesday morning stating that they will support a vote on the bill after the March 24 deadline for a preliminary agreement in the talks. “In acknowledgement of your concern regarding congressional action on legislation at this moment, we will not vote for this legislation on the Senate floor before March 24,” the letter reads. “After March 24, we will only vote for this legislation on the Senate floor if Iran fails to reach agreement on a political framework that addresses all parameters of a comprehensive agreement.”

Some are arguing that the letter is, in effect, a warning to the administration that the Democrats will indeed support the bill if a satisfactory resolution is not reached in March.

“Strong Democratic support for tougher diplomacy with Iran makes it increasingly likely that the Senate would override Obama’s threatened veto of the legislation,” reads a blog post today about the on the website of The Tower, the publication produced by pro-Israel advocacy group The Israel Project, framing the story as “Democratic Senators Set Deadline for Iran Nuke Deal.”

“The White House has been exerting pressure on Senate Democrats to stay frozen on the sidelines. Instead 10 of them committed to voting on pressure in roughly 8 weeks, which is at most a couple weeks after even the best-case scenario for pressure advocates (the calendar was already filled up through February with Keystone, DHS/immigration, etc),” argued Omri Ceren, senior adviser for strategy at The Israel Project, in an email to his distribution list. “The bill will now proceed to markup in Banking on Thursday, and the letter signatories indicate that it will come out of committee with bipartisan support.”

Seven Democrats, all of whom signed the letter on Tuesday calling for a delay in the vote, signed on to co-sponsor the bill when it is formally introduced. Sixteen Democrats ended up co-sponsoring last year’s version of the bill.

But not everyone is buying the idea that the Democrats’ move is a boon for the sanctions legislation, which some Republicans feel is already a weak version of what they really want.

“The effort to delay a vote complicates the legislative fight around the bill, which was watered down precisely so that Democrats could support it,” said Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel.

Pollak pointed out that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could still hold a vote before the March 24 deadline.

“The question now is whether Sen. McConnell proceeds with a vote before the 24th,” he said. “If he does Republicans may ask why they’re not voting on a tougher bill that better reflects the party’s skepticism of the Iran talks. I hope McConnell holds a vote, and I look forward to Schumer, Menendez, and other Democrats explaining to their constituents their remarkable faith in the Obama-Iran talks.”

Asked about the bill on Tuesday, Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “it would surprise me” if McConnell held the vote before March 24.

Corker and Graham have introduced an alternative bill to Kirk-Menendez which would allow Congress to vote on the deal itself if it is reached. On Tuesday, Corker argued that Menendez’s move was aimed at ensuring that the bill would have bipartisan support.

“What you don’t want Iran to see is that there’s some partisan split on the issue of Iran,” Corker told reporters on the Hill. “You want to keep as many people together. And so I looked at Sen. Mendendez’s effort as that. Candidly, if we were to vote on a bill on the Senate floor and it got 53 votes and Iran’s watching, that’s not where we as a nation need to be.”

Asked if he wanted to move his and Graham’s bill now, Corker said “most of the Democrats want to take a few days off, this letter thing has killed a lot of brain cells over the last several days.”

The two bills “don’t work together well,” he said.

“I support the sanctions bill but I’m willing to forego sanctions with the understanding that we’ll pass Corker-Graham in a bipartisan fashion,” Graham said.

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