WASHINGTON — In public, the White House has unleashed scathing criticism of Senate backers of a bill that would slap additional sanctions on Iran, calling the bipartisan effort a march toward war that could upend negotiations to halt the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.
But privately the political divide between President Obama and his Democratic allies may be less dramatic than it appears and more an exercise in political theater.
Both the administration and the senators stand to benefit by staking out seemingly opposing views, which could work to achieve the common goal of a nuclear-free Iran without upsetting the delicate talks underway by the U.S., Iran and five major foreign powers.
The public standoff allows the White House to send a strong message to the Iranians that Obama is willing to confront allies in his party to protect the interim agreement reached in November, expected to go into effect Monday, which requires the Iranians to halt some of their nuclear activity in exchange for modest sanctions relief while a final deal is negotiated. It’s also a not-so-subtle reminder to Iran that if it reneges on the deal, U.S. lawmakers are poised to get tougher.
At the same time, the senators who have signed on to the bill — a robust, nearly filibuster-proof majority of 59 that includes at least 16 Democrats — can bolster their national security credentials, boost their standing with constituents in an election year and curry favor with American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby.
But an actual vote on the bill does not appear imminent and, in fact, may never come.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has no immediate plan to bring the bill for debate before the president’s Jan. 28 State of the Union address, and the chamber’s calendar is likely to prevent any action until February at the earliest, or even March, those involved say. Top Democrats in the Senate oppose the bill and even those who support it do not appear ready to force Obama to issue a rare veto over Iran. So Reid appears to have time on his side, aides say.
Neither Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the bill’s chief Democratic sponsor, nor Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate and a key sponsor of the legislation, are engaged in the type of vote-whipping operation that would precede imminent action on the floor.
The fuzzy timeline appears to be fine with many Democratic senators who are backing the bill. Some say privately they would prefer to let the diplomatic efforts play out than to take a vote at all.
AIPAC continues to push Congress to act, but senators say they are not feeling the pressure from the Israel lobby that would force an immediate vote, those involved said.
Nevertheless, the White House is not taking any chances, voicing firm opposition to the measure.
“My preference is for peace and diplomacy, and this is one of the reasons why I’ve sent the message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions,” Obama said Monday during a White House event. “Now is the time for us to allow the diplomats and technical experts to do their work.”
Last week, a White House statement appeared to provoke supporters of the sanctions bill, saying it would torpedo talks and increase the chances of a military confrontation. “If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be upfront with the American public and say so,” the statement said.
Senators bristled at the suggestion that they are warmongering, a sign that the administration may have miscalculated the way its rhetoric would be received on Capitol Hill.
Rather than encourage senators to back off, some dug in. The issue is likely to come up Wednesday when Obama meets with Senate Democratic leaders.
“A lot of people were taken aback by it and turned off,” said a Senate Democratic aide, who had permission to speak anonymously about the private thinking of lawmakers. “That includes supporters of the bill and those who do not support the bill, those in government and those outside of government. It was very poorly received.”
Menendez responded with a hearty defense of his legislation in a Washington Post op-ed. “This is hardly a march to war, as some critics have suggested,” he wrote.
“The proposed legislation is a clarifying action. It allows all sides to negotiate in certainties and provides one year of space for the parties to continue talking. It spells out precisely the consequences should the agreement fail. This should motivate Iranians to negotiate honestly and seriously.”