President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have been able to hold off congressional action on Iran so far, but the issue is not going away, either in the short term or the long term.
So far, Reid, D-Nev. — aided by fierce lobbying from the president that curtailed the enthusiasm of some Democrats — has blocked a vote on legislation (S 1881) that would enact new sanctions on Iran, contingent upon the outcome of multi-country talks with Tehran over halting its ability to build a nuclear weapon.
In the short term, Senate Republicans continue to press for a vote on the bill, tying up other legislation in the past week in their pursuit. "Leading sponsors have pledged to seek any and all legislative openings to get this vote —and that's what you're seeing on the floor now," said one Senate Republican aide. "Republicans believe they're right on the policy and right on the politics — so this is really a defining moment for Harry Reid."
"The administration has clearly signaled their intention to get an agreement within six months," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a sanctions expert. "If they get to the end of the six-month period if there is no deal, I think there's going to be strong momentum behind another push to get the legislation moved to a vote."
Dylan Williams, director of government affairs for the left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street, said he doesn't doubt that backers will find reasons to push sanctions before negotiations conclude — but he does doubt the chances of that legislative push barring a monumental negotiation setback.
"I think proponents of the bill, along with hawkish allies on the outside, are going to attempt to use every bit of distressing news coming out of Iran or hiccup in negotiations to move directly to new sanctions," he said. "They're going to spend a lot of time making mountains out of molehills."
Although the administration might be able to hold off the Iran legislation tide after six months, Dubowitz said lawmakers would become especially impatient if negotiations drag out for a year.
Already, some lawmakers and aides who back new Iran sanctions are fretting that in the event of a deal, the administration will figure out a way to leave out Congress.
Dubowitz said a "battery of lawyers" were at work figuring out a way "to unilaterally lift the sanctions without congressional approval." A White House spokeswoman, Bernadette Meehan, declined to comment on the extent to which the administration is considering its options in the event of a deal, citing the early stages of negotiations and the hypothetical nature of the question.
The Senate Republican aide said Congress might need to take preemptive measures to head off an "outrageous power grab" from the administration to lift sanctions "by fiat." And while Dubowitz said the administration might be able to concoct a legal justification for doing so, it could face enormous congressional blowback for going through with it.
It could also harm the negotiations themselves if the administration declared it could act without Congress, said Dubowitz: "He will have effectively killed his bad cop."