The Obama administration is pressing the U.S. Senate not to slap even tougher sanctions on Iran, with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry both visiting Capitol Hill on Wednesday to make a personal pitch against imposing stricter penalties aimed at curtailing Iran's nuclear program.
New sanctions "could destroy the ability to be able to get agreement and it could actually wind up setting us back in a dialogue that's taken 30 years to be able to achieve," Kerry told reporters as he arrived at the Capitol on Wednesday. "We're asking the Congress to give the diplomacy they sought a chance to be able to work."
But there's an intense appetite among lawmakers for punishing Iran even further -- a bill to do it has already passed the House -- and the administration is facing an uphill battle in pressing the Democratic-controlled chamber to delay them.
"It is both an insurance policy for the United States and its allies if Iran ultimately doesn't pursue the path of the negotiations ... and as an incentive to Iran to understand that if they don't strike a deal, then here are the consequences," Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Wednesday of possible new sanctions.
"In one form or another -- in the next week or two -- the Senate's likely to move on a new package," said a Democratic aide familiar with the leadership's thinking.
The administration wants more time. Kerry came close to striking a deal with Iran and European allies over the weekend in Geneva, and another round of talks is scheduled to begin Nov. 20. The president and vice president have been lobbying members of Congress to hold off on new sanctions until Kerry has another chance to ink an agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program.
But 76 senators signed an August letter calling for tougher sanctions, representing a broad bipartisan majority. Menendez and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., have been leading a push to move forward. Pro-Israel groups have been lobbying intensely for the new sanctions as well. And there's widespread, bipartisan doubt about the potential agreement that Kerry has been working on.
"The administration's negotiations with Iran failed to achieve an interim agreement this past weekend, and if published reports are accurate, we owe our French allies a great deal of credit for preventing the major powers in the negotiations, the so-called P5+1, from making a bad, bad, bad interim deal with Iran," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Wednesday on the Senate floor.
"From my perspective, depending upon what I hear today, if the public reports that I've heard are the essence of the interim agreement, that interim agreement doesn't do very much to degrade Iran's nuclear facilities," Menendez said.
And at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, both Republicans and Democrats called for more aggressive sanctions and expressed fear that weakening sanctions would strengthen Iran's hand. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., labeled the talks "fairy-tale progress." Tougher sanctions passed the House with an overwhelming 400-20 vote this summer.
Kerry defended the deal he has been working on.
"What we have negotiated, we believe, is a very strong protocol which will restrict Iran's ability to be able to grow its program and to reach an agreement with them that we go into six months of negotiations with them on the real tough part of this," he said Wednesday. "I suppose that anybody who thinks that we haven't driven a hard bargain ought to ask themselves why it wasn't accepted."
The Senate Banking Committee has already written a bill to impose a new round of sanctions, and had been set to hold a formal markup on the legislation on Wednesday. But it's been postponed until after the classified session with Kerry on Wednesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, a must-pass bill to fund the Defense Department -- likely to come up on the Senate floor in the next week or two -- is likely a vehicle that Iran hawks will try to use to get new sanctions through the Senate. The administration had been pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to delay action on that legislation because they're afraid of possible amendments that might pass before Kerry's next round of talks.
Realistically, any new sanctions would take between three and six months to be implemented. Sources said the White House is concerned about even sending the message that the Senate would act, for fear of upending a deal -- though some of that might be posturing aimed at showing the Iranians that the administration is serious about making a deal.
Kerry on Wednesday argued that the negotiations he's involved with are exactly what the U.S. has wanted all along.
"We didn't put sanctions on this for the sake of sanctions, we did it to be able to negotiate and to negotiate a final agreement," he said.