WASHINGTON — A Senate committee on Thursday easily approved legislation that would impose tougher economic sanctions on Iran if ongoing talks about its nuclear arms program remain stalled.
The Banking Committee, in a bipartisan 18-4 vote, approved a new Iran sanctions bill crafted by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
Senators from both panels spoke in support of the legislation, arguing the threat of new economic penalties will cause Iranian officials to take the ongoing "P5+1 talks" more seriously.
"Sanctions are what got Iran to the table," the Senate's No. 3 Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, said. "If they don't come to a strong deal that prevents a nuclear Iran, period, there will be additional sanctions by this body."
Menendez and other Democrats are pushing Republican chamber leaders to put off a vote until at least March 24, essentially giving Iranian negotiators two months to agree to concessions being pushed by the United States and other Western countries.
The Senate's agenda beyond a weeklong recess that starts on Feb. 16 is unclear.
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has only said that the chamber will next take up a Department of Homeland Security funding measure after it completes work on a Keystone XL Pipeline bill.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., also a Banking Committee member, called the measure "a placeholder" that McConnell could call up at any time.
Hawkish Republicans like new Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a former House member, say Washington needs to do something as soon as possible to put more pressure on Tehran.
In fact, Cotton made his first splash since moving across the Capitol complex, saying, "I would rather see these negotiations end."
The Kirk-Menendez bill would "increase the current congressional oversight of the negotiations and require the administration to formally submit any new nuclear agreement text or extension to Congress within five days."
Schumer called that "a very good check" on the White House's deal, adding "it must be done carefully."
The measure would green-light new sanctions and reinstitute ones waived during the "P5+1" talks only if a June 30 deadline for a deal with Iran passes with no such pact.
The bill, known informally on Capitol Hill as "Kirk-Menendez," would install new sanctions on Iran, including ones to "close loopholes in existing petroleum sanctions, enhance sanctions on Iran's oil trade and financial transactions, and impose further sanctions on Iran's senior government officials, family members and other individuals," according to a summary of the legislation.
The panel approved, 18-4, an amendment offered by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would make it the sense of the Congress that lawmakers should vote on any potential deal the Obama administration strikes with Iran.
The Kirk-Menendez sanctions would be implemented one by one over several months. The committee killed, 10-12, an amendment from Cotton that would have made them all binding on July 6.
Menendez wants to wait at least two months before the full Senate votes on the bill. But he stressed that if Iranian officials continue to stall, the chamber should vote on his bill.
To him, if a vote is held at the right time, "I believe it would have broad bipartisan support."
Banking Committee Ranking Member Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said it's clear President Barack Obama, who likely soon will ask Congress for more time to keep the P5+1 process alive, "would veto the bill."
Still, the 18-4 committee vote suggests there may be the 67 required votes in the chamber to overturn a veto.