Senate Democrats and Republicans are headed for a showdown over imposing new sanctions on Iran.
The Senate began debate on a veterans bill Tuesday afternoon which would improve health care and dental care, expand educational opportunities and help the Department of Veterans Affairs address a disability claims backlog.
Democrats expected the bill sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to have bipartisan support, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that Republicans would seek to get a vote on an alternate veterans bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., that includes a provision on additional Iran sanctions.
McConnell noted Republicans have been pushing for consideration of a pending sanctions bill sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and said the veterans bill is where they will make their stand.
“We’ve been trying for a month to get a debate and a vote on the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill that will be part of the Burr alternative and we will be discussing at length on the floor why we should go forward with that legislation and why we ought to get a vote on it because this is a very time sensitive,” McConnell said after the weekly party lunches.
Burr added he hopes that Democrats allow a vote on the package.
But Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been unwilling to take up the Iran sanctions bill because the White House doesn't want any Congressional action while negotiations with Iran are ongoing.
Reid said Democrats would allow for some relevant amendments to be offered to the bill, but he called the GOP Iran sanctions push a partisan move.
“There shouldn’t be partisanship on this issue and it is really too bad…that the Republicans are trying to make an issue like this partisan," he said.
Reid noted that others have called for the Senate to hold back, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“We are where we have always been,” Reid said of the state of play of the Iran issue. “We are fixated on preventing Iran from having nuclear capability. I’ve had ten Democratic chairs write to me saying this is not the time for sanctions. The AIPAC organization has issued a public statement saying this is not the time for a vote.”
Tax Reform Doubtful
Both Reid and McConnell also said there was not much of a chance tax reform would happen this year despite a reform proposal House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., is expected to release Wednesday.
“The truth is that we should have tackled tax reform years ago,” Reid said. But “it would be extremely difficult with the obstruction that we get here from the Republicans on virtually everything to do something we should have done years ago.”
He didn’t rule anything out though. He added that he expects new Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to look at the proposal, adding that “we are over here starting over again” now that former chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has left the Senate to be ambassador to China.
Reid said he thinks, “Camp was right coming forward with a new piece of legislation.”
Asked if he would require that any tax reform proposal raise revenue, a condition Democrats had previously sought, Reid said, “I have no preconception of this.”
“I have great confidence in Sen. Wyden, and wait for him to report to me what he thinks should be done,” Reid said.
Minimum Wage Vote Delayed
Reid also said he will push a vote on raising the minimum wage until the next work period, and that he plans to have the Senate consider a six month extension of unemployment benefits soon.
“The obstruction continues and it slows things down,” Reid said of why he will delay the minimum wage debate.
He dismissed the possibility of a compromise on the minimum wage below the $10.10 an hour proposed by the Democratic bill.
“Not with me,” Reid said.
Unemployment Negotiations Continue
On unemployment insurance, Reid said he has continued to negotiate.
“I’ve had some good conversations with Republican senators,” Reid said. “There are some Republican senators of good will who are trying to work to move forward on this.”
He said he believes there is agreement to extend benefits for six months rather than three months.
But Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Republicans are still pushing for a three-month extension bill and pay-for.
“I’ve been for the same thing I’ve been for from the very start,” Portman said. “There’s a lot of misinformation floating around in a couple of the stories today.”
Portman said he has spoken with Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and others on the matter.
“We’re continuing the conversation and we’re in the same place we’ve always been for a very simple thing—which is for a short-term extension, paid for, in order to put the reform some place to actually make the unemployment system work better for the long-term unemployed,” Portman said.
He said the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Reid’s proposal for the pay-for fell short by $1.9 billion.
Amrita Kahlid contributed to this article.