What sank the Senate's Iran sanctions bill?

After Obama's State of the Union speech, it looks like Democrats are going to give peace a chance, after all

(Image credit: (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images))

In mid-January it appeared that a bipartisan Senate bill threatening Iran with new sanctions was a foregone conclusion. Yes, President Obama opposed the legislation and promised to veto it, but supporters of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act strongly hinted that they had a veto-proof majority — and with 59 senators (43 Republicans and 16 Democrats) co-sponsoring the bill, that seemed eminently plausible.

They would only need eight more votes (and action in the House) to thwart Obama's veto pen, and momentum appeared to be on their side.

If there is any momentum on the bill now, it's on the other side. Obama reiterated his veto threat in the very public setting of his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, saying that "for the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed." Jan. 20 marked the beginning of a six-month period of negotiations between the U.S., Iran, and five other world powers aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

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The negotiations won't be easy, and "any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action," not trust, Obama said. But "if John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today."

After the speech, at least four Democratic cosponsors — Sens. Chris Coons (Del.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), and Ben Cardin (Md.) — said they didn't want to vote on the bill while negotiations are ongoing. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) had already adopted that position earlier in the month.

The distance these cosponsors put between themselves and the bill wasn't uniform. Cardin punted to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is opposed to bringing the bill to the floor for a vote. (Cardin "wants to see negotiations with Iran succeed," a spokeswoman's said. "As for timing of the bill, it is and has always been up to the Majority Leader.")

Manchin, on the other hand, told MSNBC that he didn't sign on to the bill "with the intention that it would ever be voted upon or used upon while we were negotiating," but rather "to make sure the president had a hammer if he needed it." He added: "We've got to give peace a chance here."

With the list of Democratic cosponsors willing to vote for the bill shrinking by five, the dream of a veto-proof majority in the next six months appears to be dead. Even Republican supporters of the legislation are pessimistic of its chances: "Is there support to override a veto?" Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told National Journal on Wednesday. "I say, 'No.'"

So, what happened to the Iran sanctions bill? The short version: Time, pressure, and journalism.

The journalism category encompasses two points: First, reporters actually read the legislation, and it doesn't quite match up with the claims of lead sponsors Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who say the sanctions would only take effect if Iran was found to be negotiating in bad faith. A much-cited analysis by Edward Levine at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation showed that the Iran sanctions would kick in unless Obama certified a list of impossible or deal-breaking conditions.

Journalists also started asking the cosponsors about their intentions. It's possible there were never 59 votes for the bill, but the legislation was filed right before Christmas and many reporters (not unreasonably) conflated cosponsorship with support for the bill, regardless of what was happening with the negotiations. They only asked on Tuesday night and Wednesday because Obama brought up the issue in his State of the Union speech.

Time without action always saps momentum, but with the Iran sanctions bill it also allowed events to catch up with the proponents of new sanctions. When they filed the bill Dec. 20, the interim Iran deal was just a talking point; a month later it was reality. The Obama administration, U.S. intelligence community, and outside analysts agree that new sanctions would scuttle the deal, and its harder to take that risk when that deal is in effect.

Finally, critics of the bill — including the White House and J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobbying group — had time to mount a counterattack. Starting Jan. 6, J Street and other groups opposed to the legislation "reached out to senators who were on the fence and senators who'd cosponsored on day one," says Slate's David Weigel. "The message was the same: Have you guys read this thing?" Dylan William, J Street's director of government relations, describes the strategy in more depth:

We made especially prodigious use of our grass tops activists. These are people who have longstanding relationships with members of Congress to express two things. One: The bill is bad policy. Two: There was no political reason that these senators should feel they need to support the bill. There is deep political support in communities for members of Congress and senators who want to reserve this peaceably. [Slate]

So take a bow, J Street — for now, the David of the Israel lobby has slain its Goliath, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is pushing for the legislation. That could all change if the interim Iran deal falls apart or some other event intercedes to change the equation for lawmakers. But momentum is hard to un-stall, and lawmakers are now considering changing the bill into a non-binding resolution.

John Judis at The New Republic is relieved, and counts Obama's veto threat Tuesday night as the boldest part of his speech. "If these negotiations with Iran fail, the United States will be left with very unsatisfactory alternatives," he writes:

Use military force to stop Iran, which might only delay Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, and will potentially inflame the region in a new war, or allow Iran to go ahead and hope to contain Iran as we have contained other potentially hostile nuclear powers. Obama may not be able to secure authorization for the first alternative... and if he opts for the second, he will leave open the possibility of regional proliferation or of Israel going to war against Iran. It's in America's interest — and, incidentally, Israel's as well — to allow the current negotiations to take their course — without malignant interference from Congress and AIPAC. [New Republic]

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