Robert Menendez just took off the gloves in what is becoming an extraordinary fight over Iran sanctions between a leading Democratic senator and a president of the same party.
Menendez, the New Jersey senator who is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Wednesday morning — hours after Obama’s State of the Union speech — told two top Obama administration officials that what they’re saying “sounds like talking points straight from Tehran.”
That barb and others seemed all the sharper because exchanges between Republicans and Democrats on the committee and by the two witnesses, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen, were otherwise polite and friendly.
Menendez has chafed for over a year at Obama administration pushback against efforts he is leading with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to pass sanctions that would go into effect should Iran walk away from talks with major powers over its nuclear capabilities.
The Senate Democrats, in the leadership last year, managed to quash the Menendez-Kirk initiative. Now that the Republicans are in the Senate majority, it’s back on, and Menendez says he’s ready to push ahead. The Kirk-Menendez bill, although it has yet to formally appear, is strongly backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
President Obama, in one of his two most important foreign policy pronouncements in the State of the Union speech Tuesday, said he would veto new sanctions.
Obama, in resisting new sanctions now, has the backing of some top Senate Democrats, including Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calid.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and two Republicans: Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
So it’s not clear that Kirk-Menendez has the 67 votes needed to override Obama’s veto. Additionally, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) repeatedly made it clear during Wednesday’s hearing that he was not as interested in new sanctions as he was in his proposal to subject any final deal to an up or down congressional vote. Blinken suggested that such a proposal, passed as congressional legislation, would not violate the agreement governing the talks with Iran; previously, the Obama administration had resisted such a condition.
Menendez’ outburst principally had to do with administration claims that new sanctions would violate the agreement governing the talks. He says they would not, and accused Blinken and Cohen – and by extension Obama – of virtually holding Congress in contempt.
“Why is it possible that Iran will treat its parliament better than the administration” treats Congress, he said, referring to the likelihood that the Iranian government would have to approve a deal, although no such mechanism is in place yet in Congress. He also said Iran “does not believe” the Obama administration will show a credible use of force if talks fail.
Menendez’ rage has been building up; last week, the New York Times reported that at a closed meeting between Democratic senators and Obama, Menendez took offense at Obama’s claim that some senators were getting pressure from donors on the Iran issue.