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Democrats split over Syria, Iran

The unity that guided congressional Democrats through last fall’s budget battle is fracturing over debates in the foreign policy arena
Iranian students form a human chain during a protest to defend their country's nuclear program outside the Fordo Uranium Conversion Facility in Qom, Nov. 19, 2013.
Iranian students form a human chain during a protest to defend their country's nuclear program outside the Fordo Uranium Conversion Facility in Qom, Nov. 19, 2013.

The unity that guided congressional Democrats through last fall’s budget battles is fracturing over debates in the foreign policy arena. Republicans are looking to take advantage of their rivals' inter-party fights.

Over strong objections from the president, 16 Senate Democrats support a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran should the country fail to reach a permanent agreement with international negotiators to roll back its nuclear program. Those senators, along with 43 Republicans, argue that tough sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place and further pressure would flex American muscle in the 6-month talks toward crafting a permanent solution. The bill drew support from Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, and Harry Reid, D-Nev., both close allies of Obama’s but also leading supporters of policies favoring Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, America’s most powerful pro-Israel advocacy group, has lobbied members of Congress from both parties to support the sanctions.

Other Democrats are siding with the Obama administration, which argues that imposing new sanctions damaged “good-faith” negotiations while empowering Iran’s hard-liners rooting for the talks to fail. (A National Security Council spokeswoman charged last month that the sanctions bill could end negotiations and bring the U.S. closer to war.) 

The Senate bill has been losing steam ever since the White House ratcheted up pressure on Senate Democrats to abandon the it. Introduced in December by Democrat Robert Menendez, D-N.J. and Sen. Mark Kirk. R-Ill., the legislation was backed by 59 members – but now Senate leaders say they will hold off bringing the legislation to a vote until the six-month negotiation process ends.

Adam Sharon, a spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Menendez chairs, said the New Jersey Senator stands behind the bill that bears his name. 

Menendez and 58 other senators support the bill, Sharon said. “It’s his bill, three or four senators say they wouldn’t call for a vote now. His position has been, having a bill, having this in place is an extremely effective and necessary tool when negotiating with the Iranians that we need to have to avoid Iran crossing the nuclear threshold. He stands behind this bill and the whole essence of the bill is to have sanctions in waiting, but you have to move on them now to make it happen.”

The movement is still alive in the House with enough votes to pass, despite a letter signed by at least 70 Democrats opposing the measure, and a letter of criticism by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Obama reiterated in last week’s State of the Union address a promise to veto any attempt to impose new sanctions on Iran.

Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. negotiator, acknowledged this week that the temporary agreement with Iran “is not perfect,” calling it a first step on the way to a final agreement.

“This is not perfect but this does freeze and roll back their program in significant ways and give us time on the clock to in fact negotiate that comprehensive agreement," Sherman said Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The deal reached in November promised the easing of up to $8 billion in sanctions in exchange for Iran’s agreement to slow its nuclear program and allow verification by international inspectors. Iran insists its nuclear facilities are for civilian energy use but other nations fear they could be used to build nuclear weapons. The deal struck by the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany extends for a six-month period while all parties try to reach a more permanent solution.

Should those nations fail to reach an agreement or if Iran violates the terms along the way, Congress will have an opportunity to revive the legislation, which would place restrictions on Iran’s oil exports, digging into a split between Congressional Democrats who refuse the White House’s instance that additional sanctions would embolden Iran’s hard-liners, and allowing Republicans to use issue as a wedge.     

Democrats are also in disagreement over how to proceed in Syria as the country enters its fourth year of civil war next month.

After evidence showed that Syrian President Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people last August, U.S. lawmakers have called for his ouster, with some advocating military intervention including the threatened limited missile strikes that were narrowly averted when Assad agreed to turn over his chemical weapons cache. But a lack of support among international allies and the American public caused other Democrats to protest committing to another war in the Middle East.

Key members of the Obama administration including Secretary of State John Kerry and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper criticized the administration’s handling of the political and humanitarian crisis this week, drawing support from Republicans including Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., both of whom have advocated stronger intervention and support of the opposition forces.

In an off-the-record meeting with 15 lawmakers Kerry said he had lost faith in the administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis, and that the deal struck last summer by which Assad would turn over his country's stockpile of chemical weapons is stalling. McCain and Graham commented on the meeting to The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, and Bloomberg View.

According to those reports, Kerry backed up reporting that Al Qaeda affiliates are sweeping into the power vacuum in Syria, threatening the U.S.

In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday, Clapper said that al Qaeda affiliates on the ground “have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”

Clapper also said that the chemical weapons deal emboldened Assad in his attempt to cling to power.

“The prospects are right now that [Assad] is actually in a strengthened position than when we discussed this last year, by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons, as slow as that process has been,” Clapper said Tuesday, forecasting “more of the same, sort of a perpetual state of a stalemate” rather than the political transition demanded by negotiators in Geneva earlier this month.

The Daily Beast reported that Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Wash., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., issued statements Monday opposing McCain and Graham’s characterization of Kerry’s comments in the closed-door meeting. 

Obama met with Senate Democrats Wednesday and House Democrats Tuesday. According to a White House statement, at Tuesday’s meeting Obama “stressed the importance of working with Congress” on initiatives including increasing the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, and passing immigration reform. Problems with the implementation of Obama’s health care law, divisions over construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a trade initiative endorsed by Obama have drawn recent criticism from Democrats.   

EDITORS NOTE: Adam Sharon, a spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, later clarified the number of supporters for Sen. Robert Menendez’s bill. The article now reflects the updated figure.