WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama implored Democratic senators Wednesday to put off new sanctions against Iran that he warned could derail delicate nuclear talks. Regrouping at the start of a busy election year, Obama also encouraged Democrats to coalesce behind a proposed minimum wage hike as a cornerstone of the party's economic message to voters.
An evening session in the East Room of the White House offered Obama an opportunity to deliver a message privately and in person that his administration has been making publicly for weeks: Give budding negotiations with Tehran time to play out before turning the screw further. A six-month deal between Iran and world powers takes effect next week, but prominent senators in both parties have balked at the deal and want even tougher sanctions.
"The president did speak passionately about how we have to seize this opportunity," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said. "If Iran isn't willing in the end to make the decisions that are necessary to make it work, he'll be ready to sign the bill to tighten those sanctions. But we've got to give this six months."
Two senators who attended the meeting said Democrats present seemed receptive to Obama's appeal -- even some hawkish Democrats who have vocally advocated for moving ahead with new sanctions. That sentiment reflected a growing sense on Capitol Hill that lawmakers will likely take a wait-and-see approach before putting new sanctions into effect.
Wednesday's meeting came as Obama is seeking to set a positive tone for 2014, in which Senate Democrats will be fighting to retain their fragile majority despite concerns that Obama's low approval ratings and his health care law may weigh them down. Obama apologized that the calamitous roll-out of the HealthCare.gov website has inflicted political damage on Democrats, but urged senators to focus on the millions of Americans who are gaining health care under the law, senators said.
Later this month Obama will deliver his State of the Union address, in which he is expected to lay out an agenda focused on reducing income inequality that the president hopes will form a persuasive campaign theme -- if fellow Democrats remain united. Republicans appear to have taken notice, with some GOP senators rolling out their own proposals to fight poverty.
High on Democrats' agenda is an increase the minimum wage. Senators and their aides said Obama discussed that proposal at length in the meeting, which culminated in senators enjoying cocktails before leaving the White House after nightfall. Obama is supporting a push by congressional Democrats to boost the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, from the current $7.25.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, one of two independents who caucuses with Democrats, said several senators brought up the possibility that Obama could raise the minimum wage by executive order, rather than letting the issue fall victim to congressional gridlock. The White House has avoided taking a position on that idea in the past, but Sanders said Obama seemed open to it.
"His orientation was that they are taking a hard look it," Sanders said in an interview.
The controversy over National Security Agency spying programs didn't come up, senators said. Obama on Friday is expected to unveil a blueprint for changes to the NSA in the wake of disclosures about secret programs that have fomented widespread concern.
Obama has met periodically with groups of lawmakers from both parties, but still faces complaints from Republicans and Democrats alike that his White House does too little to communicate and coordinate with Congress. Last month, Obama tapped Katie Beirne Fallon, a former aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as his new chief liaison to Capitol Hill following a long period of bitter interparty fights.