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Showdown brewing on Kirk’s signature issue: Iran sanctions

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said Chicago could lose the respect of lenders if Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not re-elected. | Sun-Times Media File Photo

WASHINGTON — The single most important issue Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., is identified with in the Capitol is his relentless drive to impose new, tougher sanctions on Iran if that’s what it takes to curb its ability to be a nuclear power.

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has pursued the goal of ensuring Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon. That’s key to global security and is especially important for Israel.

There is no disagreement with the objective here. Let me say that again. No disagreement. None.

But now there is a big showdown brewing. It’s not clear how it will turn out.

Nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 have been ongoing, with deadlines extended several times. The “P5+1” refers to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., China, France, Russia and the U.K., plus Germany.

Kirk thinks the Obama administration is naïve and appeasement-prone when it comes to Iran. For years Kirk has wanted to keep a fire under Iran by having Congress pass legislation to trigger more sanctions if the P5+1 never make a deal.

On Tuesday night, Kirk, along with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., reintroduced their bill, titled “The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015.” The measure would add more economic pressure on Iran if there is no deal by June. 30.

Obama already has pledged to veto a Kirk/Menendez bill. He said so at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron this month.

The concern is if the U.S. moves on more sanctions, Iran will walk out of the negotiations, and the P5+1 coalition could fracture.

Obama took direct aim at Kirk/Menendez in his Jan. 20 State of the Union message.

“There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran,” Obama said.

“But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies, making it harder to maintain sanctions, and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. And that’s why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress,” the president said.

When the Democrats ran the Senate, the Kirk/Menendez bill did not have a chance of reaching Obama’s desk. The Republicans took control of the Senate this month. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is one of the 16 senators who are co-sponsoring the bill.

The Kirk/Menendez measure will get a vote.

But to pass the Senate, it will take 60 votes, with 67 senators needed to override a presidential veto. Republicans hold 54 seats.

Kirk has been looking for Democratic backing. The White House is working very hard to peel off Democratic support. Kirk/Menendez probably has the backing today of 52 Republicans.

Of the 16 co-sponsors of Kirk/Menendez, seven are Democrats, so that makes 59.

But there are at least three more Democrats who will be yes votes, making the tally at 62.

Obama won some breathing space on Tuesday.

Menendez and nine other Senate Democrats wrote Obama on Tuesday saying they support the 2015 Kirk/Menendez bill. But they promised “in acknowledgment of your concern regarding congressional action on legislation at this moment, we will not vote for this legislation on the Senate floor before March 24.”

The Democratic Senators besides Menendez who are co-sponsors are Chuck Schumer of New York, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Gary Peters of Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

The three other Democratic senators who joined on the letter are Ben Cardin of Maryland, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Christopher Coons of Delaware.

I’m told Kirk was scheduled to get a lobbying call from Cameron when the prime minister was in the U.S. The two never connected. It seems it would not have made a difference.