President Obama is fighting an increasingly intense battle that could shape his foreign policy for the rest of his term and, if he loses, deplete his influence on Capitol Hill. He's trying to prevent the Senate from imposing harsh new sanctions on Iran while the United States is negotiating with the Tehran regime to limit its nuclear program.
White House officials say voting to impose more sanctions at this time would undermine the talks and push Iran away from the bargaining table. "My preference is for peace and diplomacy," Obama told reporters Monday, "and this is one of the reasons why I've sent the message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions. Now is the time for us to allow the diplomats and technical experts to do their work." Obama is expected to repeat this pitch in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28.
Political strategists of both parties say that if the sanctions bill is approved and Obama's threatened veto is overridden, it would demonstrate an embarrassing lack of influence on Capitol Hill and hasten Obama's descent into lame duck status.
Many senators, led by minority Republicans and including a significant bloc of Democrats, argue that the United States must keep the pressure on Iran, in part by threatening to stop that country's oil exports, or no diplomatic solution will be possible.
Some vote-counters say 59 senators now favor the sanctions legislation and are willing to defy Obama. Among them are Democrats Ben Cardin of Maryland, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sixty-seven votes, or a two-thirds majority, would be needed to override Obama's threatened veto. Supporters of the legislation say new sanctions would be imposed under the legislation only if Iran fails to live up to the agreement and refuses to dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities.
The Obama administration and Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia have signed a six-month agreement under which sanctions are somewhat eased and Iran temporarily freezes its nuclear program. A senior White House official told reporters recently that a vote for the new sanctions would amount to a "march toward war" – because he said military action would be more likely in order to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program.
Advocates of more sanctions say the Tehran regime can't be trusted to abide by the agreement, and the sanctions are the best weapons to force them to abandon whatever nuclear weapons program they have.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.