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US Senator Robert Menendez speaks at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Nov. 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.  Mandel NGan—AFP/Getty Images

Top Democratic Iran Hawk Gives Obama Breathing Room on Talks

Jan 27, 2015

A top Democrat and Iran hawk has pledged to not support for a few months an Iran sanctions bill, granting the Administration breathing room as the new Republican Congress looks to pass legislation curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

“Many of my Democratic colleagues and I have sent a letter to the president telling him that we will not support passage of the Kirk-Menendez bill on the Senate floor until after March 24 and only if there is no political framework agreement,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, citing his Republican co-sponsor, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, in a Senate panel hearing. The letter, obtained by Politico, is signed by Democratic supporters of the Kirk sanctions bill, which the letter calls "reasonable and pragmatic."

The move will end whatever dreams Republicans had of reaching a veto-proof majority for the bill in the near-term and allow the Administration to negotiate as it wants—with less congressional input.

Menendez added that he is “deeply skeptical” that Iran is committed to make the “concessions” necessary to prove to the world that it’s nuclear program is “exclusively peaceful,” but remains “hopeful” that negotiations will work. He said that the Administration has been talking for 18 months yet it still places the odds of a deal below 50-50. Last year the Administration extended talks through June 2015 with the goal of having the major elements of the deal completed by March 24 and its entirety by June 30. A Kirk-Menendez bill wouldn't go into effect until after the June deadline.

Tony Blinken, the Department of State Deputy Secretary, welcomed the move by Menendez and echoed President Obama, who said in his State of the Union that he would veto new sanction legislation passed by Congress, as it would “all but guarantee that diplomacy fails.”

“I think it recognizes that our negotiators could use the time and space effectively,” he said. “I think the commitment to do that is something that we would see very favorably and would answer a big part of the problem that we had with the idea of legislation—even trigger legislation—being passed now before the end of March.”

The Iran issue is one of many that the Administration and new Republican Congress will fight over this year. The Senate Banking Committee has pledged to have votes on the Kirk-Menendez legislation this week and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker has drafted another proposal that would grant Congress an up-or-down vote on whatever deal the White House reaches with Tehran.

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