01/19/2014 10:34 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Patrick Leahy Warns That Congress May 'Screw Up' Iran Negotiations

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urged his colleagues on Sunday to not enact a new round of sanctions against Iran, arguing that it could muck up nuclear negotiations with the country.

Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," the Vermont Democrat called the new sanctions bill a “mistake.”

“I will tell you why,” he added. “We have voted for sanctions, very tough, and I have voted for very tough sanctions on Iran. Right now we have P5+1 of the countries working with Iran on this. We have people who have joined us on the sanctions. If they look like we are prejudging the negotiations, they are going to say: ‘Hey, United States, you are on your own.’ They are going to start pulling away …”

Host Chris Wallace asked Leahy if he believed approval of a new round of sanctions would be tantamount to a declaration of war, as asserted by the Obama administration.

“I think if we do that we screw up the ability to have real negotiations,” he replied. “If the negotiations fail, if Iran is seen as cheating, we will impose more sanctions in a nanosecond, both the House and Senate will. Don’t do it prematurely. Because if you are trying to negotiate something, you don’t have a third party –- in this case the Congress –- coming in and getting involved in that negotiation. “

Leahy has been openly critical of S.1881, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013. But he also is in the minority with his opinion. The bill currently has the support of 59 Senators, which is an impressive total but not the 67 needed to overcome a president’s veto, as the administration has pledged.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he has no current plans to bring the bill to the floor, which means that chances of passage are remote. But the White House has taken the matter seriously enough that during a meeting with Senate Democrats this past week, the president urged lawmakers in strong terms to drop the push for an additional round of sanctions.

Defenders of the bill note that the sanctions would only be implemented should Iran violate the terms of the agreement it has struck to stop and even downgrade some of its enrichment operations. And those sanctions would only come after the six-month window of negotiations. Appearing alongside Leahy on "Fox News Sunday," former NSA Director Michael Hayden argued that the president should get “as much running room as possible when it comes to negotiations like this.”

But he also seemed to embrace the bad-cop role that Congress was playing by considering a new round of sanctions.

“I think having that congressional action just off stage, just in the wing, might actually be a powerful negotiating tool,” he said. “I like the threat of additional sanctions hanging out there.”



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