US Congress 248.88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a last-minute bid to pass Iran sanctions legislation before the end of the congressional session, the US House of Representatives approved a bill late Friday tightening trade restrictions and asset freezes on the Islamic Republic.
The bill was fast-tracked through the system on what was supposed to be the last day of the session, but the continued wrangling over the $700 billion emergency financial bail out package has extended the session through the end of the week.
That will give the US Senate an opportunity to approve its own version of the sanctions bill to pass on to President George W. Bush, but it's not clear there's sufficient support for the measure to make it into law.
The House bill, which passed by voice vote, builds on existing law and executive orders to expand export and import bans on goods to and from Iran, freeze assets in the US held by Iranians closely tied to the regime, expand sanctions beyond the energy sector and encourage divestment efforts, among other provisions.
A section added last week affirms the need for multilateral diplomacy and explicitly states that nothing in the legislation authorizes the use of force.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-California) noted that the approved version wasn't as strong as other proposed sanctions bills, but stressed the need to send a message to Iran, whose president was in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly at the same time the bill was being considered.
"Preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power to me is one of the great national security challenges of our age," Berman declared. "We should be pursuing tougher and more meaningful sanctions.
"The legislation before us won't put an end to Iran's nuclear program, but it may help to slow it down," he added. "Moreover, it will send a strong signal to Teheran that the US Congress views this matter with urgency."
Though the committee's ranking member, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), joined Berman in supporting the measure, she expressed strong reservations that the legislation was weaker than other Iran bills and could send the wrong message.
She pointed to a waiver allowing the president to choose not to implement the sanction restrictions if he deems doing so would run counter to America's national security interests.
"The bill before us provides the weakest possible threshold," she said during her speech from the House floor, warning of the danger Iran posed to Israel and the greater Middle East.
Ros-Lehtinen bolstered her position by citing a Jerusalem Post article by diplomatic reporter Herb Keinon.
"Iran is halfway to a nuclear bomb, and Hizbullah, Hamas and Syria are using this period of relative calm to significantly rearm," she read from the story. "Iran gets closer, our determination is stopped. Iran is concentrating on uranium enrichment and is making progress."
The Senate version of the legislation seemed set to pass last week, when it was slated to be included in a package of measures negotiated by Republicans and Democrats to be approved en masse.
But negotiations broke down over unrelated additional amendments against earmarks sought by Republicans, according to congressional sources, torpedoing the whole package.
That led the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to charge that the bill was blocked for political purposes, so that he wouldn't enjoy a legislative achievement on Iran so close to the election, since he had authored the provisions to encourage divestment campaigns.
Obama spokesman Wendy Morigi attacked Senate Republicans for "block[ing] efforts that would put the squeeze on the Iranian regime," since Obama's legislation would "pressure Iran by accelerating state and local divestment initiatives."
Republicans, though, blamed Democrats for opposing moves connected to the earmark issue.
It is now unclear if the Senate will pass the measure on its own in the remaining days of the session, since the bill would need to be supported unanimously to pass according to long-standing Senate procedure.
Though it enjoys wide bipartisan support, that support is not universal. Aside from the issue of presidential politics, some conservative Republicans have called the bill too weak and other Republicans might object out of loyalty to the White House, which strongly opposes the measure, as it often does when it feels Congress is interfering in its prerogative to set foreign policy.
The measure would "divide the multilateral coalition that has come together to oppose Iran's nuclear programs," by blacklisting certain foreign companies and limiting its own ability to make some international deals, the White House said in giving its many objections to the legislation.
However, Bush would be unlikely to veto Iran sanctions legislation should it reach his desk.
Though the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had previously supported much stronger sanctions language, the group is still hoping the newest version passes.
"We were disappointed that the agreement fell apart [in the Senate] because of unrelated partisan rancor," AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said before the House vote on Friday. "We hope that Congress finds a way to send a signal and increase the pressure on Iran to stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities."
Americans for Peace Now praised the legislation's new provision stressing diplomacy, but opposed the measure because it was rushed through the House with little debate and no opportunity for amendments.
Later on Saturday, the Senate was also expected to approve a 2009 defense appropriation bill that would significantly boost funding to Israel's missile defense programs, before sending it to the president.
Israel would get $177 million for missile defense development, which comes on top of its $2.55b. in annual military aid. The missile defense funding represents a $58m. increase from the president's original request for 2009 and is $22m. more than Israel received for similar projects last year.
Various components of the Arrow long-range missile defense program would get $104m. while the shorter-range David's Sling would get $73m., nearly twice as much money as that project received last year.
In addition, the bill contains $35m. for the Hunter Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, $3m. for the new Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles program and $3m. for missile guiding helmets for fighter pilots, among other projects, according to AIPAC.
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