May 25, 2010 | Congressional Quarterly Today

Congress Pushes Forward on Bill Amid Possible Deal on U.N. Sanctions

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday that he wants Congress to complete action on new Iran sanctions legislation before leaving for the Memorial Day recess, even as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a new breakthrough with Russia and China on sanctions to be imposed by the United Nations.

The Obama administration had been putting pressure on Congress to slow its effort to pass legislation that would sanction companies doing business with Iran’s energy sector until the White House could complete a new round of multilateral U.N. sanctions.

Clinton’s announcement that the United States has reached an agreement with Russia and China on a “strong draft” for multilateral sanctions suggested that the administration’s efforts are finally paying off.

House-Senate Negotiations

But Congress is moving ahead at a fast pace, with a final bill expected to be released any day. Both chambers have passed tough new measures (HR 2194, S 2799), and negotiators are working to reconcile the two bills.

“We hope it will move out of conference this week and be on the floor next week,” said Hoyer, D-Md., adding that he had spoken with House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., to urge a quick resolution to the conference.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Banking Committee and cosponsor of the Senate bill, agreed that Congress was “not going to reduce or retreat” from passing a unilateral measure, although he commended Clinton for the breakthrough at the United Nations.

Mark Dubowitz, director of the Iran Energy Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, said the development at the United Nations “certainly frees up Rep. Berman,” whose committee has teamed with Dodd’s to take the lead in crafting the conference agreement. Berman and others have been working with the White House to help synchronize the two tracks of sanctions, Dubowitz added.

Dubowitz, who has been tracking the sanctions legislation closely, said most of the major issues facing the conference have now been resolved, and predicted that the bill “is going to come out of conference even tougher.”

The White House continues to push for legislative language that would allow it to waive sanctions on companies from what it determines to be “cooperating countries,” but observers say any such language is likely to be highly circumscribed, if included at all.

The deal Clinton announced between the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany on new sanctions comes one day after Iran trumpeted an agreement with Brazil and Turkey to ship about half of its nuclear material to Turkey in an effort to allay fears about Tehran’s weapons program.

“And let me say, Mr. Chairman, I think this announcement is as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days as any we could provide,” Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

Hoyer panned the deal announced by Tehran, calling it “unacceptable” because the plan would allow Iran to keep some of its enriched uranium “to pursue its nuclear arms intentions.”

Under the deal, Iran said it had agreed to trade about 2,500 pounds of its low-enriched uranium for higher-enriched nuclear fuel that it says will only be used in medical research.

The Iranian government is hoping that the new agreement will head off the push for new U.N. sanctions, which the United States has been pressing for as early as next week.

Until recently, Russia and China had been very reluctant to agree to new penalties. But there have been signs in recent weeks that their attitudes had been shifting.

Diplomats circulated the new draft to other Security Council members Tuesday.

White House Meeting

The White House on Tuesday also took the apparently unprecedented step of summoning the 44 Jewish members of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses for an early evening meeting. According to some of those invited, the move was meant to offer assurances that the president supports Israel and firmly opposes Iran ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.

It is also a signal, members said, that Obama feels the need to shore up his support among one of his party’s key voting blocs as Democrats head into a tough midterm election season.

The meeting is “pretty much about things they’ve done to help Israel and the fact that they think they’ve not been appropriately rewarded for the all support they have for Israel, and that their message is not being sent out properly,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.