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Cantor Eyes Iran Bill as Democrats Splinter

House Democrats’ top foreign policy legislator slammed Republican leaders on Tuesday, calling talk of bringing up a Senate bill to toughen sanctions on Iran a political move.

Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot L. Engel, who with the panel’s chairman co-sponsored the more stringent House-passed Iran sanctions bill, said GOP leaders are simply trying to undermine President Barack Obama and prove that they are more supportive of Israel.

“Republican leadership in the House ought to be more concerned with implementing the sanctions than concerned with trying to embarrass the administration,” the New York Democrat said. “I’m interested in a real coalition. I think sometimes the Republicans are more interested in scoring brownie points against the administration, trying to box the administration into a corner.”

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., defended the deliberations, telling CQ Roll Call on Tuesday that there has been “a lot of pressure building that we should act,” despite warnings from the administration that doing so could undermine diplomatic talks with Tehran, splinter the international coalition and increase the likelihood of war.

“I believe strongly that we ought to have in place sanctions that will occur when the Iranians inevitably break their word. We can’t trust the Iranians,” Cantor said. “This president has continued to say, ‘Now’s not the time.’ So I’m hopeful we can work with our Democratic counterparts both in the House and the Senate to get something done.”

GOP leadership-level discussions about holding a vote on the Senate’s bill are already dividing congressional Democrats, some of whom want to be as tough as possible on Iran while others want to give the administration time to negotiate a permanent deal preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Republican aides note that a move toward the vote could pressure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to act on the bill. Momentum seems to have stalled in that chamber and in fact may be turning against action, as Obama announced Sunday that the first steps of November’s interim agreement would take effect Jan. 20.

Aides also note that the discussions could put pressure on House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. Until last month, the Democrat was working directly with Cantor on a nonbinding resolution expressing a sense of the House that the agreement should prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon rather than simply contain its efforts. That effort stalled under pressure from the administration, however.

Hoyer said Tuesday he would not support House leaders bringing up the Senate language, but indicated that a resolution could still be in the works.

“I’m sensitive to the administration’s concern,” he said. “But my own view is the House of Representatives and the United States Senate both have an obligation and a right and perhaps a responsibility to articulate their view as to what needs to be the final outcome of an agreement.”

Engel also said he’d support a resolution.

Other Democrats, however, are dead-set against action. White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes met Tuesday with a group of progressive Democrats and lobbied against a House vote.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who was in the meeting, said she and other progressives believe that any vote, even on a nonbinding resolution, would undermine the president.

“We should do everything we can to not mess it up. There’s a lot of feeling that a resolution, a Cantor-Hoyer resolution, would not be constructive to these efforts,” she said. Schakowsky, a chief deputy whip in the party, said Hoyer is not rounding up support for a resolution. She will meet with him Wednesday to make her case against acting, she said.

Still, even a resolution may not be enough to quell frustration among some Democrats over whether the administration is being upfront about its negotiations with Tehran. Rep. Brad Sherman, a senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the White House has yet to release the text of Sunday’s agreement to members, so he would be inclined to vote for the Senate bill.

“They haven’t even given us the written agreements. They’re leaking their description of it to the press without showing us the documents. That creates a certain amount of skepticism,” Sherman said.

GOP aides also point to a report in the Los Angeles Times noting comments in Persian-language press from Iran’s chief negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, referencing the existence of secret diplomatic side agreements that do not have to be disclosed publicly.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed those reports, saying the agreement would be released both to Congress and the public.

Carney also sought to minimize the split within Democratic ranks as he was peppered with questions about defections, as well as a complaint by Hoyer that the White House should retract statements suggesting that backers of new sanctions are putting the country on a path to war.

“The issue here isn’t motive or intent, it’s that the consequence potentially of sanctions legislation — which would have the negative unintended effect of destabilizing the sanctions regime, or fraying the consensus — would be that it might limit the options available to the president in achieving his commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Carney said.

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