House Armed Services ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told The Cable today that claims he is trying to "water down" Iran sanctions legislation inside secret conference negotiations is "utter and complete bullshit."
Smith reached out to The Cable today to refute claims made by a senior GOP aide in our story yesterday that he and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) were pushing for changes to the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions amendment that would weaken its penalties on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and any foreign banks that do business with it. The administration has been pushing for changes to the amendment that would weaken the sanctions, and give the administration more flexibility in implementing them.
The Kirk-Menendez amendment was added to the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill last week by a 100-0 vote in the Senate. House and Senate conferees are meeting behind closed doors this week to hash out a compromise version of the bill, which includes negotiations on the Kirk-Menendez language. Whatever emerges from the secret conference will be voted on by both chambers next week and sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.
A senior GOP aide told The Cable on Thursday that Smith and Levin were advocating inside the secret conference for the changes the administration wants. Smith said flatly today he may be seeking changes in the amendment, but is not trying to "weaken" the sanctions.
"It is not accurate to say we are trying to water it down," Smith said, declining to get into specifics about what changes he is seeking.
"Different people have different views on what is stronger than something than something else, but this notion that Menendez and Kirk got it absolutely 100 percent perfectly right, and that there's no point discussing anything else that can be done to it, doesn't make any sense to me," Smith said.
"It's not a matter of weaker or stronger, it's a matter of making sure we get the language right, in order to put us in a position to put the maximum amount of pressure on Iran. That's what we're trying to do."
The secret nature of the negotiations has contributed to the confusion of what's going on with the Iran sanctions language. Adding to the problem is that, once the conferees reach a final decision, it will be virtually impossible to go back and alter the language because that would open up the entire defense bill again and there's no time to do that if Congress wants to pass the bill this year.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who are both upset at the administration over its handling of the sanctions negotiations, could have kept total control over the amendment by not adding it to the defense bill in the first place, which is managed by the Armed Services Committee and therefore somewhat out of their control. But they needed to attach the amendment to a piece of "must pass" legislation in order to see their ideas sent to Obama quickly and without a real possibility of a veto.
Smith was careful in our interview to explain that while the secret process is managed by him, Levin, House Armed Services chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), and Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), the negotiations would take the views of other lawmakers into consideration as well.
"We're certainly not going to just leave it up to the four of us to figure out how to work this," Smith said. "But we are trying to make sure it gets in the bill, gets signed, and gets into force as soon as we can do it."
House Foreign Affairs ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), who announced yesterday that he would definitely not be the one carrying the administration's water on the issue, is one of the other key voices within the conference.
"I will not, and Congress should not, give into entreaties from the administration or elsewhere ... to dilute our approach to sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran's petroleum transactions," Berman said to applause at a conference on Thursday sponsored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy and research organization. "The Kirk-Menendez amendment is a good amendment."
Menendez also spokes at the FDD conference and doubled down on his push for the stronger measures.
"In the case of Iran I've argued that we have no choice but to impose the most robust sanctions possible because we will NEVER permit Iran to have a nuclear weapon and the timeline for acting is now - NOT when we are facing no other choice than military action," Menendez said.
"Last week, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to support this option... The time to act is now."
Levin's office declined to comment on the secret negotiations.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.