How Hubris (and J Street) Stalled the Iran Sanctions Bill

This morning, after the State of the Union, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons sat down for a live interview with Politico’s Manu Raju. Coons, who’s facing re-election this year but lacks a serious opponent, had been an early co-sponsor of the new Iran sanctions bill. His support, added to that of other progressives up for re-election, had created a sense of momentum from sanctions backers. So Raju asked him about it.

RAJU: You co-sponsored this Iran sanctions bill. Do you think this needs a vote before the negotiation period ends?

COONS: Now is not the time for a vote on the Iran Sanctions Bill. I think that sanctions have so far been bearing fruit. Sanctions have brought Iran to the table and the sanctions that were passed by Congress during the Bush administration, during the Obama administration – this administration has finally delivered on bringing together a multinational coalition of our allies and our partners to make those sanctions work, to really cripple the Iranian economy and bring them to the table.

Coons wasn’t the first co-sponsor to suggest that the train be slowed down, but he was the first of the 26 original co-sponsors to be this explicit. This wasn’t where supporters of the bill, chiefly New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, expected to be at the end of the month. Nineteen days ago, “aides” told CNN and BuzzFeed that the bill had broken a two-thirds majority, strong enough to beat a presidential veto. They’d come a long way, from apparent collapse to an apparent majority. But the bill is now, in one of Washington’s more universal bits of jargon, stalled.

How’d that happen? A combination of hubris from the bill’s supporters and lobbying by its opponents. When the bill dropped, on Dec. 19, J Street’s director of government relations, Dylan Williams, was headed home (to Hawaii) for vacation. Over the holidays and until the Senate returned for 2014, the bill gained 21 additional co-sponsors.

“Jan. 6 was when the counter-push began,” said Williams. “Since that morning J Street has, along with other groups, played a very active, senators, members of Congress, but we made especially prodigious use of our grass tops activists. These are people who have longstanding relationships with members of Congress to express two things. One: The bill is bad policy. Two: There was no political reason that these senators should feel they need to support the bill. There is deep political support in communities for members of Congress and senators who want to reserve this peaceably. The extent of that grass-tops push really surprised a lot of senators and some members of Congress.”

J Street and company reached out to senators who were on the fence and senators who’d co-sponsored on day one. The message was the same: Have you guys read this thing?

“It became quite clear that original sponsors had been told sanctions only would only come into effect if Iran was determined not tobe negotiating in good faith,” said Williams. “They learned that was untrue. The bill would implement sanctions 90 days after passage unless president could certify a a laundry list of claims, and some he couldn’t certify if he tried.”

This brings us to the second cause of the impasse: hubris. The Jan. 10 news that the bill was unbeatable was based not on the public count of co-sponsors but on the low number of senators who’d denounced. A good example of this theory: A Jan. 10 (hey, busy day) piece by Adam Kredo that quoted an aide to Rand Paul who said the Kentucky libertarian would “keep an open mind.” The scooplet was used to portray Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake as “the lone Republican who has publicly refused to take a stand on the bill.” 

The pressure didn’t work; the fightback was on. Both Flake and Paul maintained neutrality, as more Democrats were quoted opposing the sanctions bill, if only for reasons of timing, wanting to let negotiations play out. Democrats like Coons and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker were pressured from the left on social media. There still aren’t 34 confirmed “no” votes on the legislation, but the campaign to make Harry Reid hold a vote on a winning resolution is over. For the moment.