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The Quest for 67: Which Dems May Defy Obama on Iran Sanctions

WASHINGTON — Will a reliably liberal Democrat lead the charge to President Obama’s first veto override?

The Senate Banking Committee will take up the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 next week, with a hearing on the bill on Tuesday followed by a markup on Thursday.

Obama vowed in his State of the Union address this week to veto any Iran sanctions legislation. “There’re no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran,” he said. “But new sanctions passed by this Congress at this moment in time will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails, alienating America from its allies, making it harder to maintain sanctions and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”

Sponsor Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who said the administration’s talking points sounded “straight out of Tehran,” noted today that “Iran is clearly taking steps that can only be interpreted as provocative, yet the administration appears willing to excuse away any connection between these developments and signs of Iran’s bad faith in negotiations.”

There was a definite buzz in the last Congress that there were the votes to override a veto of Iran sanctions if then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would have brought the bill to the floor. But what clues have Senate Dems given as to where they stand today?

Let’s start with the Democratic co-sponsors of the Menendez-Kirk sanctions legislation in the 113th Congress:

Menendez: Hasn’t budged an inch on his legislation despite recent bullying from President Obama at a Senate Democrats’ retreat. “It seems that we are allowing Iran to shuffle the deck and deal the cards in this negotiation that we’re playing dealer’s choice,” Menendez said at a Wednesday Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “Frankly, that’s not good enough. We need to get into the game.”

Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.): Promoted the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act last March at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington. “The only way — the only way that Iran will voluntarily give up nuclear weapons is if they know that tougher and tougher sanctions will be put in place until they do,” Schumer told the crowd. “…The United States must be prepared to use all — all available tools to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state because it is vital to Israel’s security but even more importantly it is vital to America’s own security.” In November, Schumer stressed “the success of negotiations can only be defined as an agreement that removes the threat of a world with a nuclear Iran.”

Ben Cardin (D-Md.): The senator said Jan. 18 on Fox News Sunday, “The only issue now is the timing. We hope that negotiations will go satisfactorily and Iran will not become a nuclear weapons state. But if they move in that direction, we’re going to pass tougher sanctions. The question is when do we do it and that’s the issue and discussions taking place on Capitol Hill.”

Bob Casey (D-Pa.): “I think the idea we can just take it off the table and put it on the shelf until the six months transpire is a mistake,” he said of sanctions a year ago on MSNBC. “I think there’s a fairly consistent belief that having sanctions in place, new sanctions in place, but to suspend or hold in abeyance the imposition of them is probably the right way to go. But this is a very critical time. We have to get this right and we’ve got to be very thoughtful about how we do it.”

Chris Coons (D-Del.): Asserted at Wednesday’s Senate Foreign Relations hearing one of the key precepts of sanctions legislation: “I will just reassert that no deal is better than a bad deal and that a deal that we cannot ultimately enforce and that we cannot ultimately live with in terms of where it leaves us in the long term or the short term is worse than no deal at all,” Coons said. “And one of my core concerns is whether or not we really will have the time to react, we’ll be really able to detect cheating and leakage and whether we will be able to sustain the sanctions coalition.”

Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.): When the Joint Plan of Action was announced in November 2013, Blumenthal said that “past Iranian conduct gives little cause for hope” for a deal. “Strengthening sanctions and enforcement of them is vital to create incentives and increase pressure if this interim step is unsuccessful,” he said then. “I believe there is a continued need for the Senate to pass even tougher sanctions.”

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.): The senator debated MSNBC’s Chris Hayes last February, where he challenged her as a co-sponsor of sanctions legislation. “At some point, you have to believe what they say. You can’t discount words that come out of people’s mouths,” Gillibrand said of Iran’s threats to annihilate Israel. “At some point, you must listen and say, they may do what they say they’re going to do.”

Mark Warner (D-Va.): “Diplomacy is the best means for resolving all international disputes, but diplomacy cannot be used as a cover for the continuation of the research, development and manufacture of secret weapons of mass destruction,” Warner said in November.

Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.): Donnelly was photographed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week on a congressional delegation to Jerusalem. He also visited Yad Vashem and talked with regional leaders about “the necessity of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Cory Booker (D-N.J.): “Sanctions have imposed real and increasing harm on Iran’s economy and isolated them from the international community,” the senator said on his campaign website last fall. “Pursuing these diplomatic and economic actions must continue while there is time, because while all options should remain on the table, the cost of military action to end the Iranian nuclear program could be very high for us and our allies in the region.”

Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.): Last January, Manchin supporting yanking the sanctions bill to allow more time for negotiations to work. He hasn’t indicated how he’s feeling this time around, but has noted concerns about inspections and updates to Congress necessary to come to a decision on his vote.

Michael Bennet (D-Colo.): “Any potential deal resulting from the ongoing negotiations must prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear-armed state,” Bennet said in November. “…Relief from sanctions should be contingent on Iran holding up its end of the bargain.”

Blumenthal, Schumer, Casey and Gillibrand also called on Treasury Secretary Jack Lew this month to investigate possible violations of existing Iran sanctions.

More Dem votes could come from the 83 senators who signed on to a March letter demanding Obama meet core principles, including clear consequences, in any final nuclear agreement with Iran.

“We believe that Congress has a continuing role to play to improve the prospects for success in the talks with Iran,” they wrote along with the outlined principles. “As these negotiations proceed, we will outline our views about the essential goals of a final agreement with Iran, continue oversight of the interim agreement and the existing sanctions regime, and signal the consequences that will follow if Iran rejects an agreement that brings to an end its nuclear weapons ambitions.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) noted at the time it would be “very difficult for Iran to comply” with the demands outlined in the letter.

A look at Democratic senators who were not recorded as co-sponsors of Menendez-Kirk but signed the March 2014 letter issuing the demands for any final agreement with Iran:

Dick Durbin (D-Ill.): Said he’s fearful of anything that would “jeopardize negotiations” and spoil “this is once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity.” Durbin acknowledged “there are some who are more anxious, want to create some incentive for the Iranians to do the right thing, putting pressure on them prospectively.”

Tim Kaine (D-Va.): Said Wednesday at the Foreign Relations Committee’s Iran hearing that he’s “been a strong supporter of the administration’s diplomatic efforts… but with respect to a final deal, I have a series of very significant concerns.” Said he’s heard things from the negotiating team “about the number of centrifuges contemplated in this deal; this is not consistent with a purely civilian program.” Publicly disagreed with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a staunch administration supporter of the talks, about Congress’ role now. “If the administration was negotiating about other things and saying we’re not gonna touch the congressionally imposed sanctions regime at all, then congressional approval wouldn’t be warranted,” Kaine said. “…And so, I do think it is very important for Congress to be able to weigh in in onto this deal, especially given the actor that we’re dealing with.” Kaine was also on the weekend congressional delegation to meet with Netanyahu in Israel.

Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.): Was still holding back on support for Menendez-Kirk this time last year, saying through a spokeswoman that administration “should have a limited amount of time and flexibility to negotiate with Iran while keeping open the options for additional sanctions.”

Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.): She’s not been vocal about her thoughts on Iran, but the moderate Dem has bucked the administration on other key votes such as Keystone XL.

Angus King (I-Maine): The senator said after the last extension of talks in November that another delay was “disappointing” but he supported the administration’s diplomatic pursuit. “The stakes couldn’t be higher, but the issues are complex,” King said. “I encourage our negotiators to stay at the table and explore every pathway to an acceptable resolution.”

Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.): The senator was falling in the administration camp a year ago, telling the Albuquerque Journal, “I tend to agree with the intelligence community that if we move forward in the midst of these negotiations with these sanctions, what you’re going to do potentially is ruin the negotiations while they’re in progress.”

Patty Murray (D-Wash.): Came out against the sanctions bill a year ago, telling constituents in a letter back then that “the administration should be given time to negotiate a strong verifiable comprehensive agreement.” However, she added, “If Iran does not agree to a comprehensive agreement that is acceptable, or if Iran does not abide by the terms of the interim agreement, I will work with my colleagues to swiftly enact sanctions in order to increase pressure on the Iranian regime.”

Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.): At Wednesday’s Foreign Relations Committee hearing, the senator said she believes “it’s important for us to keep our coalition together if we’re going to be successful,” but she asked questions about Russia’s participation in that coalition while it’s inking lucrative deals with Tehran.

Al Franken (D-Minn.): In a debate this past campaign season, Franken defended the administration’s handling of the Iran negotiations. “The sanctions worked, that’s what got them to the table,” he said. “Their economy is crippled.”

Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.): Stressed in 2013 that “we need to make our decisions in consultation with Israel” in moving forward with Iran. “It is, in fact, Israel, that they have threatened to wipe off the globe. And it is important that we stay locked with Israel,” McCaskill told Fox.

Jon Tester (D-Mont.): Long a critic of the regime in Tehran and businesses that have dealt with Iran, Tester was in Israel when the JPOA was announced in 2013 and got the unhappy reaction from Netanyahu firsthand. On Iran, he was cautiously optimistic but said, “We need to hold their feet to the fire.”

Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): She has mystified liberals trying to decipher the potential oneday presidential candidate’s foreign policy positions. She has said she supports sanctions and the Obama administration’s diplomatic initiative. Warren maintains that the “United States must take the necessary steps to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

Ed Markey (D-Mass.): Noted at Wednesday’s Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iran, “I wrote a book back in 1982 on the International Atomic Energy Agency. And I concluded at the time it was a paper tiger in terms of its ability to put in place the kinds of intrusive inspections that would ensure that there was not a breakout.” Markey also stressed that a “no enrichment policy is the correct policy” — Iran has indicated it will not bend on a right to enrich.

Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.): Opposed sanctions a year ago and caught flack from critics last spring for his “soft” college thesis on the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.): “I have long supported tough sanctions on Iran to help get them to the negotiating table, and I believe it is necessary to maintain and enforce the existing sanctions to ensure that Iran will implement the terms of the interim agreement and reach a comprehensive agreement that addresses all outstanding issues surrounding its nuclear program,” she says on her website.

Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.): The senator has herself been the author of sanctions legislation, with a successful 2012 measure that aimed to shut down sanctions loopholes and publicly expose companies that sell oil to Iran. This time last year, though, she joined the camp of Dems saying it was better to hold off on new legislation.

Tom Udall (D-N.M.): Said at Wednesday’s Foreign Relations Committee hearing it’s “very important” that Congress doesn’t “torpedo” or “disrupt” P5+1 negotiations. He also agreed with the administration’s anti-sanctions argument that “it’s holding the coalition together that’s tremendously important.”

Ron Wyden (D-Ore.): Has said he’s ready to join his colleagues if necessary to pass legislation to stop a nuclear Iran. With Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Wyden called on President Obama last May to “lead on the issue of respect for basic human dignity around the world” and confront “the Iranian regime’s brutality.”

Jack Reed (D-R.I.): Acknowledged last July that he was among the Dems frustrated at the pace of Iran negotiations and lack of “a sense of where they are” in progress. “But to simply say, ‘we need more time’ is not going to be as effective as some detail about where they are,” Reed said.

Bill Nelson (D-Fla.): Back when the JPOA was inked in 2013, Nelson characterized it as “a choice between a pause or imminent war — I choose a verifiable pause.” Last January, Jewish federations in his home state began pressing Nelson to sign on to the Menendez-Kirk sanctions bill.

Other Dems on the letter were Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

And from the 113th Congress to the 114th, there was a Senate seat that stayed blue, but switched its position on Iran negotiations after the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

As a House member and senator-elect, Gary Peters (D-Mich.) supported sanctions after the administration’s November extensions: “The recent extension of the P5+1 negotiations demonstrates that even tougher sanctions are needed to provide the necessary leverage to ensure Iran abandons its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” he said.

Is every Republican senator a reliable vote? Not quite.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said at the Foreign Relations Committee hearing that he’s “sensitive to the administration’s concern that Congress move ahead now with additional sanctions even triggered that might upset the negotiations and fracture the coalition, the effective coalition that we have.”

“I do believe that if the administration thinks that they can conclude an agreement and move on without Congress weighing in, however, at some point on that agreement, that’s a bridge too far,” Flake added. “It is our right and our responsibility to weigh in on an ultimate agreement.”

And Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) announced that she and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are working together on crafting a “moderate proposal” to turn sanctions back on “if the president in consultation with the intelligence community determines that Iran has violated any existing nuclear agreement.” Menendez has contended that sanctions cannot be turned on and off like a spigot, thus a reactive bill only would offer limited protection.

Boxer said she and Paul are “very excited” to share their bill once they put the “finishing touches” on the legislation.

“There’s a chance of an override of a veto, frankly,” Paul acknowledged today of the Menendez bill. “I’m somebody who wants to work to find a middle ground.”

So if two Republicans fall off, 15 Dems or Independents are needed to get to the veto-proof threshold of 67.