US Senate opens showdown with Obama over Iran sanctions

Iran Nuclear Power

WASHINGTON (AP) - Senators in both parties squared off with the Obama administration Wednesday about whether the threat of new U.S., sanctions would scuttle nuclear talks with Iran as House Speaker John Boehner, without consulting the White House, invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress.

Netanyahu is a staunch opponent of Iran, and Boehner's move to bring him before a joint meeting of Congress likely increases the chances of a congressional collision with the White House.

"Congress can make this decision on its own. I don't believe I am poking anyone in the eye," the speaker said. "There is a serious threat that exists in the world. And the president last night kind of papered over it."

The White House said the invitation was a breach of typical diplomatic protocol. Spokesman Josh Earnest, traveling with the president to Idaho, told reporters the administration would "reserve judgment until we have an opportunity to speak to the Israelis about their plans for the trip and about what he plans to say."

The invitation was a coordinated effort involving Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with staff discussions beginning last year, according to a senior Republican aide.

Boehner contacted the Israeli ambassador earlier this month to assess Netanyahu's interest and received a positive response. In turn, several dates were suggested, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the individual wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the private talks.

The invitation comes at a crucial time for Netanyahu, who is in the midst of a tough fight to win re-election in Israel's upcoming March vote.

Polls show Netanyahu's Likud Party running behind the main opposition group headed by Yitzhak Herzog's Labor Party, and a main theme employed effectively by his rivals has been the rancor in the country's critical relationship with the United States.

While many voters in Israel can distinguish between Boehner's Republicans and the White House, the image of Netanyahu addressing Congress - still a rare honor for a world leader - could badly undercut the opposition message.

At a heated hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Sen. Bob Corker pushed legislation that would allow Congress to take an up-down vote on any agreement that the Obama administration and its international partners reaches with Iran to prevent it from being able to develop a nuclear weapon.

Corker, now the committee chairman after the November elections gave the Republicans control of the Senate, said he had talked directly with U.S., French and European Union negotiators, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Israeli intelligence officials and no one has said that permitting Congress to have an up-down vote would hamper the talks - and could even strengthen the U.S. position.

The panel's top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez, reiterated his support for legislation he has drafted with Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, that would ramp up sanctions against Iran if a deal is not reached by July 6. The bill does not impose any new sanctions during the remaining timeline for negotiations, but if there's no deal, the sanctions that were eased during the talks would be reinstated and then Iran would face new punitive measures in the months thereafter.

Time is running out to reach a deal with Iran, which claims that its nuclear program is peaceful and exists only to produce energy for civilian use. Talks have been extended until July, with the goal of reaching a framework for a deal by the end of March.

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