WASHINGTON (JTA) – Republicans in the U.S. Senate have sunk anti-Iran sanctions for the second time in less than a month, drawing allegations that they are putting politics ahead of the need to confront Tehran’s nuclear program.
Senate Democrats made one final bid last week to pass legislation that would tighten sanctions aimed at getting Iran to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. Among other things, the stalled measure would facilitate efforts to divest from the Islamic Republic.
Republicans blocked it the evening of Oct. 2, leading Democrats once again to suggest that the GOP was playing politics by obstructing legislation championed by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
“We’ve tried to get this done in this body; there’s been objection by the Republicans. That’s unfortunate,” said Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader. He made his comments after Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) exercised his prerogative to obstruct the legislation.
The Senate has adjourned this session and it is unlikely that it will reconvene before the new Congress next year, when the bill would have to be reintroduced from scratch. That costs time, a precious commodity that Israel and pro-Israel groups say is dwindling as Iran moves closer to acquiring a nuclear bomb, perhaps as early as next year.
Spokesmen for Obama suggested that Republicans opposed the legislation because it was authored in part by the Democratic nominee for president.
“It’s something that people should be made aware of,” Dan Shapiro, a senior Middle East adviser to Obama, said. “We had a chance to really toughen the sanctions against Iran. That didn’t happen because it was blocked by the administration and Republican senators.”
The bill, strongly supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, consolidates two earlier measures that had languished in the Senate because of tactical obstructions imposed by Republicans: one targets Iran’s banking system, bans U.S. dealings with entities that deal with Iran’s energy sector and closes loopholes that allow U.S. companies to deal with Iran through foreign subsidiaries; the other facilitates divestment from Iran by naming companies that deal with the Islamic Republic and providing legal protection to entities that choose to divest.
Obama authored the latter legislation; it’s passage would have handed him a major legislative victory at a time when the McCain campaign is trying to paint him as ineffectual in Congress and soft on Iran.
Allard said at the time that he was blocking the legislation because “the Banking Committee is working on new language.” But the Senate Banking Committee already had passed the legislation, and it was sponsored by its chairman, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), and its ranking member, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
Allard’s spokesmen did not return requests for comment; nor did the campaign for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Republican presidential candidate, or the Republican Jewish Coalition.
As the bill has wended its way through the Senate, Republican lawmakers have never made clear why they oppose the legislation even as they say they support the concept of sanctions.
On earlier occasions, spokesmen for the McCain campaign have said that Obama was not serious about the legislation because he did not convene hearings on the matter in the subcommittee on European Affairs that he chairs. Yet, generally, in the Senate, once legislation passes muster with the most relevant committee – in this case, the banking committee – the only reason for a senator to convene hearings in another committee would be to slow it down. Obama would have no reason to obstruct his own legislation.
Both components of the legislation passed handily in the U.S. House of Representatives last year as separate bills – as did Dodd’s most recent consolidated bill, sponsored in the lower chamber by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The White House strongly opposed both bills, partly because the legislation would have encroached on the president’s foreign policy prerogative, and partly because it would have inhibited sensitive negotiations under way with European allies to present a united front on sanctions. Many Republican senators, on the other hand, have voiced support for the measures and voted for them in committee – only to stay silent as various members of their caucus block them from being passed.
Before the primaries, congressional insiders were predicting success for Obama’s divestment bill, while they saw the other bill – named for the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), Berman’s predecessor, who had sponsored it in the House – as doomed because it was so far-reaching.
Obama’s bill, matched in the House by legislation initiated by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, was considered more modest and realistic: It would “name and shame” companies that invested in Iran’s energy sector and it would protect from shareholder lawsuits pension funds that choose to divest from Iran.
That would have created the opportunity for lawmakers to say they were addressing the issue without creating too many waves.
The White House nonetheless opposed the bill, saying the “name and shame” component would alienate European allies. The chances of passing the divestment bill receded as Obama’s star rose in the primaries.
AIPAC officials said they were looking on the glass half-full side.
“AIPAC was pleased the legislation passed the House initially and passed again, and disappointed that it didn’t get done in the Senate,” AIPAC spokesman Josh Block told JTA. “We hope the Senate finds a way to move forward with this legislation” – either in a “lame duck” session after the presidential elections or in the next Congress.