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Senate passes Iran sanctions bill, setting up veto question for Obama

WASHINGTON – The Senate passed on Thursday a 10-year extension of existing U.S. sanctions on Iran, sending President Barack Obama a bill that his administration has protested as unnecessary with veto-proof support.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said last month that the extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, which covers energy, trade and defense-sector sanctions against Tehran’s nuclear and missile activities, would threaten the multilateral nuclear pact passed last year. He threatened that Iran would respond if the extension became law — putting veto pressure on the Obama administration, which believes the president has sufficient authority to punish Iran without an extension of congressional sanctions.

But Obama may be powerless to prevent the sanctions extension from becoming law, now that both chambers have voted overwhelmingly for it: senators passed the legislation on Thursday by a vote of 99 to 0, while last month, House lawmakers passed the same bill by a vote of 419 to 1.

The White House argued against extending the law by stressing that the president already has “substantial authorities” to sanction the Iranian regime for bad behavior – such as a recent spate of ballistic missile tests that U.S. officials believe run counter to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Iranian nuclear deal.

“We retain substantial authority to impose additional sanctions if they are warranted,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday. He added, however, that if Obama does sign the bill, it would not be the first time “where the President has signed into law bills that Congress has passed that we’re not sure are entirely necessary.”

But the administration has stopped short of threatening a veto outright. And if Obama does decide to veto the bill, there are veto-proof majorities in Congress who would be able to override any blocking action the president might attempt to take.

Lawmakers in both parties are concerned that if the United States doesn’t keep existing sanctions against Iran on the books, it will complicate efforts to “snap back” those sanctions into place if Iran breaks the terms of the Iran deal – a feature that was vital in gaining support for the pact in Congress.

Critics of the Iran deal stressed that having the existing sanctions in place was particularly vital during the presidential transition.

“Extending the Iran Sanctions Act gives us the ability to reimpose the sanctions the Obama administration lifted to implement the Iran nuclear deal and ensures President-elect [Donald] Trump and his administration have the tools necessary to push back against the regime’s hostile actions,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who is under consideration to become Trump’s secretary of State, said in a statement.

Many Republicans and Democrats who have advocated expanding existing congressional sanctions against Iran to better address Tehran’s ballistic missile tests, foreign ventures in support of designated terrorist entities, and cyber-hacking and espionage activities.

Some Republican leaders, including Corker, tried to use the upcoming sanctions extension as an opportunity to expand sanctions against Iran. But while most Senate Democrats disagreed with that approach, they nonetheless wanted to extend the existing sanctions regime.

Now that both chambers have voted to approve the sanctions extension, Obama will have 10 days, not including Sundays, to decide whether to veto the bill before it automatically become law — assuming Congress, and particularly the House, where the bill originated, is still in session. Should Congress adjourn before those 10 days are up, the president could effectively pocket-veto the bill.

Lawmakers are scheduled to be in session until Dec. 16, but they are expected to depart Washington by the end of next week, which would fall within the 10-day window. However, congressional leaders have already indicated that they may not adjourn as is typical at the end of a two-year congressional session, for fear that Obama could take advantage of the several weeks’ window to make recess appointments before the 115th Congress convenes.

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