Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Robert Corker, R-Tenn., arrive together to a SFRC hearing, on September 17, 2014.

Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Robert Corker, R-Tenn., arrive together to a SFRC hearing, on September 17, 2014. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Obama and Congress Approach an Impasse on Iran Sanctions

A potential showdown between Senate Democrats and the White House over Iran could lead to the first successful veto override of President Obama's tenure. By Fawn Johnson

A potential showdown is looming between Senate Democrats and the White House over Iran, one that could lead to the first successful veto override of President Obama's tenure.

On one side are Hill Democrats who—along with Republicans—want to weigh in on Iran's nuclear program. On the other is the White House, which has said that any statement from Congress would jeopardize a long-term deal to dismantle the country's nuclear capabilities. Obama has vowed to veto any legislation that imposes sanctions, urging Congress to "hold your fire" while talks continue.

Twelve Democrats in the Senate have in the past cosponsored legislation to impose sanctions on Iran. If they all continue to call for the sanctions, it would put the Senate close to the two-thirds majority necessary to override Obama's veto; supporters would need just one more vote if all 54 Republicans support the bill.

Obama has vetoed only two bills in six years, and neither was overridden. More vetoes are likely on tap now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress—on issues ranging from the Keystone XL pipeline to Obama's executive actions on immigration—but no current issue other than Iran seems as likely to attract the number of Democrats necessary for an override.

Democrats who favor more sanctions on Iran say they need hard details from the administration about the progress it has made in two years of talks. How many reactors are still functioning? How much uranium do the Iranians have?

"Are they allowing full access? Just someone give me an update. Help us make a decision on the bill," said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has supported sanctions in the past but is undecided on how he will vote when the Senate takes up a sanctions bill later this month.

Democrats aren't yet willing to discuss bucking Obama in such a public fashion, according to aides, but the possibility is certainly there. It's difficult for any lawmaker to vote against a punishment for Iran, and those who are frustrated with how the talks are going could egg everyone else on.

"I think there are some who are more anxious, want to create some incentive for the Iranians to do the right thing, putting pressure on them prospectively," said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. "Others, like myself, feel like this is once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity. I just don't want to jeopardize negotiations."

Asked if a sizable number of Democrats would vote against Obama's wishes on the issue, Durbin would only say, "The operative word there is 'sizable.'"

Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey is leading the charge among Democrats who want Iran sanctions. He will get the chance Wednesday to lay out his argument for imposing sanctions if the talks with Iran fail. As the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez will have his best opportunity yet to air his concerns that the talks have dragged on for too long (since 2013) with the United States having little to show for it.

The Foreign Relations Committee will receive a formal update Wednesday from State and Treasury Department officials at a hearing on the Iran nuclear talks. Later in the day, the Senate Banking Committee will have a classified briefing on the same topic, according to Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama.

Any Iran-sanctions bill must ultimately go through the Banking Committee, but the Foreign Relations panel offers the first peek at the intensity of the conflict between Democrats who favor sanctions and the White House. Menendez, with Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, is proposing new sanctions that would not take effect until July, a deadline that the United States, Iran, and several European countries have already agreed to for reaching a deal.

Menendez is taking a nonconfrontational tone, according to an aide, noting that his legislation would allow Obama to delay the sanctions if he thinks they are close to a deal. He wants the sanctions to be "prospective," meaning a backstop for the United States if Iran walks away before the deadline. Nothing happens until then.

Menendez is a feisty senator, unafraid to dress down people who don't offer compelling arguments or can't back up their requests with facts. He clashed with Obama at the Democrats' retreat last week over Iran. But if he wants to win over enough Democrats to send a message to Obama that the Congress should play an active role in the negotiations, he needs to make sure everyone knows that his sanctions bill is respectful of the White House's negotiating position. At the same time, the global situation is changing with a variety of bold actions from Iran, including the recent detention of a Washington Post reporter, that could warrant a statement from Congress.

The next step for the legislation will be the Banking Committee, which is expected to vote on it next week. GOP aides expect the bill to be on the Senate floor after the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline debate, which is likely to continue through the month.