Senate Democrats divided on new Iran sanctions

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will have to balance competing factions of Democrats in his caucus. Ten senior Democrats are urging him to consult them before imposing new sanctions on Iran, but others have drafted a bill that does just that.
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Ten senior Senate Democrats are urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., not to take any action related to imposing new sanctions on Iran without consulting with them first.

The 10 Democrats are all committee chairs, including Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who leads the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. His committee has jurisdiction over international sanctions-related legislation. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who chairs the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca.,, who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence, also signed the letter.

“In recent years we have strongly supported round after round of intensified US sanctions,” the senators wrote. “However, at this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.”

Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Thomas Carper of Delaware, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, John Rockefeller of West Virginia, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Tom Harkin of Iowa also signed the letter. 

The letter comes after a trio of senators – including Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – introduced legislation that would impose new sanctions and restrictions on Iran if the country does not comply with the terms of a new interim nuclear agreement with the United States.

Menendez along with Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., crafted the bill, despite warnings from Secretary of State John Kerry and the White House that any new legislation that imposes new restrictions on Iran could endanger the fragile new bilateral pact. Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Kerry said the U.S. is in “an extremely delicate diplomatic moment” and warned that the U.S. could lose the support of China, Russia, and European allies for current sanctions if Congress chooses to impose additional sanctions.

Asked about the bill Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, "We don't want to see actions that actively undermine American diplomacy."

The issue has divided senators, with Boxer and Levin writing in an op-ed Thursday: “As staunch supporters of Israel, we understand the dire risk to our Israeli allies should Iran cross the nuclear threshold…But we shouldn't pass legislation now that would endanger negotiations that most people and countries want to succeed.” 

Schumer and Menendez, on the other hand, argue that Iran will be more likely to comply with the new agreement if tougher sanctions loom over them. Reid wouldn’t discuss the issue when CBS News asked him about it today. With the House of Representatives already gone for the holidays and the Senate set to leave in the next few days, it is unlikely he would make any move on this issue until January – if at all.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.