The Senate June 15 gave a unanimous blessing to President George W. Bush’s diplomatic approach toward Iran. At the same time, lawmakers more narrowly beat back a measure that would have tightened sanctions aimed at curbing progress in Tehran’s nuclear program.
During debate on the fiscal year 2007 defense authorization bill, the Senate on a 99-0 vote backed a nonbinding “Sense of the Senate” amendment by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The legislation endorsed Bush’s diplomatic opening to Iran, including his offer of direct talks if Iran suspends its uranium-enrichment program. (See ACT, June 2006.)
That followed a 54-45 vote against an amendment by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) that would have increased sanctions against Iran and those states and companies helping it. Santorum said the legislation was needed to ensure that “companies have to make a choice whether they want to do business with Iran or whether they want to do business with the United States.” The House overwhelmingly passed similar legislation in April. (See ACT, May 2006.)
The defeat followed an intervention by the Department of State, which said the measure would harm relations with countries needed as part of its diplomatic strategy. The United States has joined with China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom to try to fashion a series of carrots and sticks to coax Iran to suspend its enrichment program and negotiate measures that would ensure that its nuclear program is peaceful.
“This amendment would shift international attention away from Iran’s nuclear activities and create a rift between the U.S. and our closest international partners,” Jeffrey Bergner, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, wrote in a June 15 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.).
Santorum’s amendment failed even though the measure was largely identical to legislation Santorum had introduced earlier this year, which had collected 61 co-sponsors, far more support than needed for passage in the 100-seat chamber.
Some of those who had supported the legislation but opposed the amendment said they did not want to interfere with Bush’s diplomatic initiative. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that he remained a “strong supporter” of the legislation “but considering President Bush’s current diplomatic efforts, today’s venue and timing were not right to reauthorize it.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is a co-sponsor of the Santorum bill, said he voted against Santorum’s amendment to the defense bill because of its call to take $100 million intended for current military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and use it for pro-democracy efforts in Iran.
McCain, Smith, and several other expected Santorum supporters also cited procedural reasons for their vote. They said that the Pennsylvania lawmaker should not have attached it to the defense bill. Rather, they said the measure should first have been considered by the Senate Foreign Relations and Banking Committees. Supporters remain confident that the measure will pass after consideration by those panels.But, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns in June 22 testimony before the Senate Banking Committee endorsed alternative legislation which would simply extend the Iran-related sanctions of the earlier law for another five years. The Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, which was revised in 2001 and is set to expire in August. (See ACT, September 2001.)