WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats and Republicans are pushing for harsher sanctions against Iran's Central Bank as fears of Tehran developing a nuclear weapon outweigh concerns that any step would drive up oil prices and hit Americans at the gas pump.
The Senate on Wednesday weighed whether to add the sanctions measure to a massive, $662 billion defense bill that moved closer to passage. A vote on the sanctions was likely Thursday.
On Wednesday, lawmakers voted 88-12 to limit debate on the legislation, and looked to wrap up the bill by week's end.
The legislation would authorize funds for military personnel, weapons systems, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and national security programs in the Energy Department. The bill is $27 billion less than what President Barack Obama requested for the budget year beginning Oct. 1 and $43 billion less than what Congress provided to the Pentagon this year.
Tougher sanctions against Iran have widespread support in Congress, reflecting concerns not only for U.S. national security but ally Israel's as well. Last week, the Obama administration announced a new set of penalties against Iran, including identifying for the first time Iran's entire banking sector as a "primary money laundering concern." This requires increased monitoring by U.S. banks to ensure that they and their foreign affiliates avoid dealing with Iranian financial institutions.
But lawmakers pressed ahead with even tougher penalties despite reservations by the administration.
Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., offered an amendment to the defense bill that would target foreign financial institutions that do business with the Central Bank of Iran, barring them from opening or maintaining correspondent operations in the United States. It would apply to foreign central banks only for transactions that involve the sale or purchase of petroleum or petroleum products.
The sanctions on petroleum would only apply if the president determines there is a sufficient alternative supply and if the country with jurisdiction over the financial institution has not significantly reduced its purchases of Iranian oil.
Lawmakers cited the recent International Atomic Energy Agency report that Iran is suspected of clandestine work that is "specific to nuclear weapons," its alleged role in the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States and the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran.
"One of the greatest threats to our nation and our ally Israel is Iran," Menendez said, insisting that the United States must take steps to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
"We cannot, we must not and we will not let that happen," Menendez said, "but the clock is ticking."
Kirk said the amendment was clear: "If you do business with the Central Bank of Iran, you cannot do business with the United States."
The administration harbors concerns about the enforcement of the measure, which has more than 80 backers in the Senate. Denis McDonough, White House deputy national security adviser, held a closed-door Capitol Hill meeting with several senators on Tuesday, including Kirk and Menendez.
After the session, Kirk sought to allay concerns about rising gasoline prices.
"I've had detailed conversations with Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, who described a great willingness by Saudi Arabia to increase (oil) production," Kirk told reporters.
A vote on the amendment was expected on Thursday.
The Senate approved dozens of amendments by voice vote on Wednesday. Among them:
_Linking funds for the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund to a requirement that the Obama administration certify to Congress that Pakistan is trying to counter improvised explosive devices.
_Calling on the president to devise a plan, with input from the military and NATO, for accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan._Seeking an urgent intelligence assessment of Libya's stockpile of about 20,000 portable anti-aircraft missiles and the threat they pose to the United States and its allies.