WASHINGTON -- Presidents of both parties, over the past several decades, have shown a willingness to interpret Senate resolutions in the broadest imaginable way when it comes to war, whether it's to launch a 10-year land-war in Southeast Asia or Afghanistan, to torture detainees picked up in foreign countries or to eavesdrop without a warrant on American citizens.
This time around, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wants to make sure there are no misunderstandings.
The Senate is debating legislation that would impose strict sanctions on Iran, including targeting foreign banks and businesses that deal with Iran.
The bill would not explicitly allow war with Iran. But Paul, who has been a critic of U.S. involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan, doesn't want to take any chances. His amendment would make clear that nothing in the bill "shall be construed as a declaration of war or an authorization of use of force against Iran or Syria."
A single senator can wield serious influence in the Senate simply by refusing to go along, and Paul is willing to use it. In late March, Paul blocked the bipartisan Iran sanctions bill from coming to a vote, demanding consideration of his amendment. The House has already approved a version of the legislation. Moving forward would require coming to an agreement with Paul so that he lifts his objection, or getting 60 votes to bypass him, which would chew up several days of limited Senate floor time.
So far, only one Democrat, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), has expressed interest in signing on as a cosponsor.
Merkley spokeswoman Julie Edwards told The Huffington Post that the two senators have spoken about the issue. "If that bill were to come to the floor, Senator Merkley would be interested in exploring the amendment further," she said.
Other Democratic senators said that they received an email from Paul's office about the amendment, but they wanted to look at it closer when the bill comes to the floor before making a decision.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he didn't see what the hold-up was. "It doesn't bother me. I don't think it's necessary, but it's okay by me," he said of Paul's amendment.
His regular allies, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), alternately said that they were frustrated by Paul and that they were trying to work with him. "It's not about authorizing war or putting restrictions on it," Graham said. "Rand's a great guy. I've got 71 cosponsors. I'm ready to vote."
"I, as one of the sponsors, don't intend" it to authorize war, Lieberman said, "and I don't think there's anything in it that says that, so hopefully we can work this out."
He said that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was ready to move forward. "If Senator Paul and we can work out some language that is agreeable, that's the best way to do it. If not, we'll just have a vote," Lieberman said Tuesday. "I know that this is on Senator Reid's mind. I just talked to him this morning about it and he'd like to do it as soon as possible, do both the sanctions legislation and the anti-containment resolution separately." (Reid told The Huffington Post that he is "trying very hard" to come to terms with Paul to move forward.)
The effort to rally votes simply to clarify that the bill does not authorize war has been a frustrating one for Paul. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that the amendment wasn't "helpful" at the moment.
"I just don't think it would be helpful right now, frankly, to have that kind of a debate when you're in the middle of negotiations, when you're trying to send a bunch of other different kinds of messages, and when you don't want to confuse the ability to bring people to the table and act in good faith," he said. "When you start talking about war debate and strength debate, it's a whole different climate. I don't think it's necessary."
Mike McAuliff contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story referred to an Iran sanctions bill that Paul aims to attach his amendment to, and misidentified the bill number. In fact, Paul plans to attach his amendment to any legislation or resolution that confronts Iran, a Paul spokeswoman said.
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