Senate Democrats pledge to hold off on new Iran sanctions

WASHINGTON – A group of key Democratic Senators told President Barack Obama Tuesday they will hold off on supporting new Iran sanctions until a critical March deadline has passed.

“In acknowledgement of your concern regarding congressional action on legislation at this moment, we will not vote for this legislation on the Senate floor before March 24,” the senators said in a letter to Obama, referring to the deadline for world powers and Iran to agree to a political agreement.

The senators said that while they remain skeptical that Iran is committed to making the concessions that world powers seek, “We remain hopeful that diplomacy will succeed in reversing Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon capability.”

If that deadline is met, the parties have until the end of June to agree to a comprehensive accord that addresses whatever technical details are required under the political agreement.

One of the letter’s signatories, Sen. Robert Menendez said during congressional testimony Tuesday, “Many of my Democratic colleagues and I sent a letter to the president, telling him that we will not support passage of the Kirk-Menendez bill on the Senate floor until after March 24th and only if there is no political framework agreement.”

Menendez is the co-author of legislation that would impose additional sanctions on Iran should a final deal not be reached by the end of June.

Nine other senators joined Menendez in signing the letter, including Charles Schumer, Richard Blumenthal, Gary Peters, Robert Casey Jr., Benjamin Cardin, Christopher Coons, Joe Manchin, Joe Donnelly, and Debbie Stabenow

"We appreciate the recognition that our negotiators could use some additional time and space to pursue the diplomatic option in the absence of this legislation being passed," Anthony Blinken, Assistant Secretary of State, told lawmakers during testimony. "I think the commitment to do that is something that we would see very favorably, and would answer a big part of the problem that we had with the idea of even trigger legislation being passed now."

The Senate Democrat’s support is critical as Obama has threatened a veto should any sanctions legislation reach his desk before negotiations conclude.

In order for Congress to override a veto, lawmakers would need two-thirds support from both houses of Congress. Republicans currently hold 54 seats in the 100-member Senate, necessitating support from their Democratic counterparts should they seek to outmaneuver Obama.

The letter comes just a week after House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. The Israeli premier is expected to rally congressional opposition against any prospective deal, which he believes Iran would use to covertly pursue a nuclear weapon.

The White House said the invitation was a breach of protocol by Netanyahu and Boehner.

Neither Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to meet with Netanyahu when he is in Washington, citing standing policy to not meet with foreign leaders ahead of pressing elections.

Still, Netanyahu is set to deliver remarks to Congress March 3.

Iran and world powers are scheduled to meet again in February following talks in Geneva that concluded earlier this month.

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