WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama delivered a forceful veto threat in front of Congress, imploring members at his State of the Union speech Tuesday not to pass a bill to slap more sanctions on Iran.
"The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible," Obama said. "But let me be clear: If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed. If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war."
Obama has continually vowed to veto a sanctions bill. However, warning lawmakers on their own turf ratcheted up pressure by the president to avoid that route. Obama's remarks were met with halting applause in the chamber. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not applaud during the president's comments about Iranian diplomacy.
Obama devoted about three minutes of his speech to the Iranian issue, signaling the importance of the diplomatic effort. However, Obama himself in December gave negotiations to halt Iran's nuclear program not more than a 50-50 chance of succeeding.
Fifty-eight senators have signed onto a bill sponsored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that appears to conflict with a Nov. 24 agreement between Western powers and Iran saying the U.S. government would not impose additional sanctions during an interim agreement. Iran's foreign minister told Time in December that a deal to resolve Iran's nuclear program would be "dead" if the U.S. imposes additional sanctions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has repeatedly said that he has no plans to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. That means that even with the support of a majority of senators, the bill may not reach Obama's desk. (The House of Representatives passed a stricter sanctions bill in July, so a Senate bill would almost certainly pass in the GOP-controlled House.)
Though the Senate bill's authors have said sanctions would only be triggered if Iran walks away or violates an agreement, critics argue that the bill would impose additional conditions -- such as limits on ballistic missile testing and financing of terrorist groups -- that would violate the November interim agreement.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a co-sponsor of the sanctions bill, agreed that it should not be brought to a Senate vote during the interim agreement. "I did not sign it with the intention that it would ever be voted upon or used upon while we were negotiating," Manchin said on MSNBC after Obama's speech. "I signed it because I wanted to make sure the president had a hammer if he needed it and showed them how determined we were to do it and use it if we had to." He added that the U.S. needs to "give peace a chance."
Obama defended diplomatic efforts with Iran in his speech.
"And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program –- and rolled parts of that program back -– for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It is not installing advanced centrifuges," he said. "Unprecedented inspections help the world verify, every day, that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
He went on, "These negotiations will be difficult. They may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies. And the mistrust between our nations cannot be wished away. But these negotiations do not rely on trust. Any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb."
Obama called Iran less powerful than the Soviet Union and challenged those who think a permanent nuclear pact can't be reached without new sanctions. "If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today," he said.
BEFORE YOU GO
01/29/2014 1:22 AM EST
Sen. Menendez On Obama Sinking His Iran Sanctions Bill: 'I'm Not Frustrated'
President Barack Obama made clear Tuesday night that an Iran sanctions bill being pushed by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) isn't going anywhere, threatening a veto if it ever made it to his desk.
HuffPost caught up with Menendez after the president's address and asked for his thoughts on Obama shutting down his legislation. He didn't have much to say.
"I’m not frustrated," said the New Jersey Democrat as he ducked into an elevator, pushing the buttons and looking ready to be done with the conversation. "The president has every right to do what he wants."
Menendez's bill has bipartisan support, but it faces stiff resistance from the White House, which argues it may thwart a delicate deal now in place between Iran and a number of world powers, including the United States. Under that six-month deal, Iran will stop developing its nuclear capability in exchange for an ease in existing sanctions.
Speaking to a group of reporters as he made his way to the elevator, Menendez said his "real concern" is that, without steadily imposing sanctions on Iran, the U.S. will ultimately let them all fall away.
"We'll have to accept a nuclear weapons state or we're going to end up with a military option," he said. "We won't have sanctions in place anymore."
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said he noticed something different about the way the president talked about Iran during Tuesday's address.
"He talked about preventing them from building a nuclear weapon. It used to be we're going to prevent them from having the capability to build a nuclear weapon. That seems to be gone," Lankford said. "It was all about just not getting to the last stage rather than capability. That's a pretty big shift."
-- Jennifer Bendery and Michael McAuliff
01/29/2014 1:03 AM EST
Michele Bachmann: Equal Pay Is So Old
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) didn't think much of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address (aside form his support for wounded warriors), but she was especially dismissive of his appeal for women to get equal pay. That's just so over, Bachmann argued.
"Frankly, a lot of what we heard were 40-year-old prescriptions and 40-year-old bromides. I mean really, equal pay for equal work?" Bachmann said. "I mean, this was something in the 1970s people were talking about. So I think we've addressed that."
Most economists estimate that women earn about 77 percent of what their male counterparts earn.
-- Michael McAuliff
01/29/2014 12:57 AM EST
Sen. Lindsey Graham: 'World Is Literally About To Blow Up'
Shortly after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters point-blank: "The world is literally about to blow up and our president did not really paint a fair picture of the threats we face."
Graham, a member of the Senate Arms Services Committee, said he wanted Obama to tell the American public during his annual address how he intends to resolve the conflict in Syria and questioned whether the administration's negotiations with Iranians over their nuclear program would be productive.
"I cannot stress to you enough how disappointed I was to hear the president's explanation of the state of affairs when it comes to the Mid-East and our national security threats," Graham said. "I thought he underplayed that and oversold. Explain what happens in the Middle East if the Syrian conflict goes on and (Bashar al) Assad continues to win."
He went on: "I would say that trying to free people from the bonds of al Qaeda is a good thing. That going into Afghanistan is a good thing. Taking Saddam Hussein out is a good thing. Trying to get people get on their feet and elect their government is a good thing."
Graham and a bipartisan group of senators have called for more sanctions on Iran. Obama has promised to veto any legislation that would increase such sanctions.
-- Eugene Mulero
01/29/2014 12:35 AM EST
State Of The Union Poll Gives Obama Positive Marks
HuffPost's Ariel Edwards-Levy and Mark Blumenthal report:
CNN's instant polling among Americans who watched Tuesday's State of the Union found an overwhelming majority reacting positively to President Barack Obama's address, as it has four times previously during his presidency.
The network's poll found that 76 percent of Americans viewed the speech somewhat or very positively, in line with reactions to his previous speeches, although the percentage with "very positive" views declined. Last year, 77 percent of watchers reported a positive view of the speech to CNN, and slightly higher numbers approved of Obama's speeches in three previous years. (The network didn't conduct a post-State of the Union poll in 2012.)
01/29/2014 12:15 AM EST
GOP Response To State Of The Union Leaves Out These Words: Repeal Obamacare
Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) delivered harsh criticisms of President Barack Obama's health care reform law during the official GOP response to his State of the Union address Tuesday, but stopped short of explicitly demanding its repeal.
McMorris-Rodgers highlighted the negative effects of the Affordable Care Act on consumers whose premiums rose, whose previous health insurance policies were canceled because they didn't meet the law's benefit standards and whose physicians aren't covered by the new plans available on Obamacare's health insurance exchanges. But while McMorris-Rodgers declared Obama's reforms a failure, she didn't vow that congressional Republicans would continue their push to repeal the law, for which the GOP-led House has vote dozens of times.
"No, we shouldn't go back to the way things were, but this law is not working. Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government's," McMorris-Rodgers said. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made no mention of Obamacare in the written statement he issued following the speaches by Obama and McMorris-Rodgers.
01/28/2014 11:17 PM EST
Environmental advocates had mixed reviews for the climate and energy portions of President Barack Obama's speech –- praising his climate comments but criticizing his energy strategy.
A number of environmental groups wrote to the president earlier this month asking him to drop his "all-of-the-above" rhetoric on energy. That policy, they wrote, is "fundamentally at odds with your goal of cutting carbon pollution." But Obama's speech doubled down on that language, claiming that the strategy "is working."
"If we are truly serious about fighting the climate crisis, we must look beyond an ‘all of the above’ energy policy and replace dirty fuels with clean energy," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement following the speech. "We can’t effectively act on climate and expand drilling and fracking for oil and gas at the same time."
Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth, noted that the speech "was filled with unhelpful contradictions" in an email to The Huffington Post. "You cannot address carbon pollution through an all of the above energy policy. You cannot promote regulatory streamlining and trade pacts that will undermine governments regulations while trying to implement carbon pollution regulations."
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, praised the climate portion of the speech but also brought up the environmental elephant in the room that Obama didn't address tonight: the Keystone XL pipeline. His statement called on Obama to reject the proposed pipeline from Canada to Texas.
-- Kate Sheppard
01/28/2014 11:16 PM EST
Republicans Respond To Obama With A Soft-Focus Human Interest Speech
HuffPost's Jon Ward reports:
The response to the president's State of the Union address from Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.), the GOP's fourth-ranking member in the House, was largely an attempt to present a humanizing side of the GOP, "a more hopeful Republican vision."
The 44-year old mother of three, who gave birth to her third child in November, talked at length about her own biography: She worked at a McDonald's drive-through in college, she got up before dawn to pick apples on her family's orchard, she was in the 4H Club, she's married to a retired Navy commander. The YouTube livestream of her speech featured a picture of McMorris-Rodgers' family when she mentioned her husband and children.
Beyond that, her speech was largely a string of generalized bromides about how Republicans want to "empower people, not politicians."
But for a party that has lost support among women voters in the last few elections -- and is viewed by a good number of voters as the party of old white men -- such a soft-focus human interest speech was just what the GOP wanted.
01/28/2014 11:12 PM EST
Obama Barely Mentions Government Shutdown, In Contrast To Clinton In 1996
In 1996, President Bill Clinton went before the nation and shamed congressional Republicans for shutting down the government. It was his first State of the Union address after two shutdowns that closed the federal government for 28 days, and he made sure GOP lawmakers would regret what they did.
But on Tuesday, in his first State of the Union speech since the 16-day shutdown in October, President Barack Obama took a very different approach. He made only a passing reference to the government shutdown and never pointed the finger directly at anyone.
"For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government," said Obama near the beginning of his address. "It's an important debate -- one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy -- when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States -- then we are not doing right by the American people."
01/28/2014 11:07 PM EST
Exactly Zero Words On Pot, Drug Policy Or Criminal Justice Reform
President Barack Obama didn't mention criminal justice, drug policy or marijuana in his 2014 State of the Union address at all.
Obama recently told the New Yorker he was troubled that "Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do." Attorney General Eric Holder has identified fixing the broken justice system that disproportionately affects millions of young black men as one of his top priorities. And the administration recently seems to be taking a more lenient stance on drug policy, allowing Colorado and Washington to proceed with their experiments in marijuana legalization.
None of that, however, was in the speech.
Every interest group feels left out when their favorite issue gets excluded from the State of the Union, and marijuana reform advocates are no exception. Tom Angell, co-founder of Marijuana Majority, said he thought it was "shameful" the president couldn't spare a few words.
"There are many ways the president can act to lead us out of this mess without Congress, including commuting the sentences of the thousands of nonviolent drug offenders that are locked up for no good reason," he said in an email. "He should also use the bully pulpit to build the case for repealing mandatory minimum sentences and reforming the failed drug prohibition policies that put too many of our fellow Americans behind bars for too long."
-- Matt Sledge
01/28/2014 11:01 PM EST
Drone Strikes Under 'Prudent Limits' Still Cause Civilian Casualties
President Barack Obama mentioned in his remarks the "prudent limits" he has imposed on U.S. drone strikes, referring to new procedures for the so-called "targeted killing" program laid out in a May 2013 speech.
In Pakistan, at least, those procedures seem to be having some effect: the U.K.'s Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently found that there were no reported civilian casualties from drones in that country in 2013.
Overall, however, drone strike deaths -- including those of suspected militants -- increased in both Pakistan and Yemen in the first six months after the May speech. And 2013 ended on a grisly note for the program, when the U.S. killed up to 12 civilians in a strike on a Yemeni wedding convoy.
"We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence," Obama said Tuesday.
So far, Pakistanis and Yemenis do not seem to be satisfied by the changes to the drone program. Pakistani's interior minister this week blamed a U.S. drone strike for derailing peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, and Yemen's parliament approved a resolution after the wedding convoy attack calling for an end to all drone strikes in the country.
-- Matt Sledge