When Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday outlined the Senate agenda for the upcoming work period, he left out a bill that 59 members of his body are co-sponsoring: Iran sanctions legislation.
More than any single lawmaker, the Nevada Democrat has kept the sanctions bill at bay. By not scheduling it for the floor, he has averted a vote that very well might send the measure over to the House, where it would be assured of then being sent to the president's desk.
Hill aides and analysts said Reid is motivated to keep the bill off the Senate floor by his allegiance to the White House; by progress in diplomatic negotiations to end Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon that has dampened his caucus's enthusiasm to enact new sanctions; and by his desire to avoid a reputation as someone who could be blamed for pushing the United States into another war.
President Barack Obama has identified the Iran nuclear program as his chief foreign policy concern.
By staving off the sanctions legislation that would be triggered by a failed final deal with Iran — and which Obama has threatened to veto — Reid has helped him pursue negotiations with Iran on the terms Obama prefers.
"The reason he's holding off is because the White House is asking him to. The White House is putting a huge amount of effort into blocking this bill," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The effort, Dubowitz said, has included daily calls from Secretary of State John Kerry, national security adviser Susan E. Rice and other top officials. "Obviously senators are under enormous pressure to not move the bill, including Reid."
Dubowitz, who favors passage of a new round of sanctions to put pressure on Iran during negotiations, said the White House has launched a "withering assault" on bill backers, characterizing them as warmongers.
Some members of Reid's caucus — even some co-sponsors of the bill — have asked not to be put in a position of having to override a veto on their president, fearing an even more withering assault, Dubowitz said.
A congressional aide who is following the process closely echoed some of Dubowitz's arguments, but from a different perspective.
Dubowitz also warned of the potential for Reid's and the president's position to backfire.
"The consequences for the White House of blocking the bill, and attacking senators as warmongers, are that the White House will own the failure if Iran refuses to reach an acceptable deal and ends up with the capacity for a nuclear weapons breakout," Dubowitz said. "Reid, too, will be complicit in this failure if he is perceived as standing against the majority of his colleagues."