Senators in both parties squared off with the Obama administration Wednesday about whether new 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. Boehner said he did not consult with the White House about inviting Netanyahu.
"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, R-Ky., 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.
At a heated hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker vigorously 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 GOP 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 ongoing talks -- and could even strengthen the U.S. position.
Ranking Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey reiterated his support for legislation he's drafted with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., 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.
"The Iranians are playing for time. ... After 18 months of stalling, Iran needs to know that there will be consequences for failure," Menendez said.
Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state, said any new sanctions and even legislation that would trigger new ones if a deal is not reached would not help and could provoke "Iran to walk away from the negotiating table."
He argued that the talks have halted Iran's rush toward larger stockpiles of enriched uranium and other nuclear activities and have led to more intrusive and frequent inspections. Blinken said the existing sanctions are stifling Iran's economy.
"Iran is already under acute pressure from the application of the existing sanctions regime," he said. "... Iran is well aware that an even sharper sword of Damocles hangs over its head. It needs no further motivation."
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.
Boehner released a letter extending the invitation to Netanyahu for Feb. 11. Boehner also told a private meeting of GOP lawmakers that Congress would proceed on new penalties against Iran despite Obama's warning that any legislation would scuttle diplomatic negotiations over the country's nuclear program.
"You may have seen that on Friday, the president warned us not to move ahead with sanctions on Iran, a state sponsor of terror," Boehner told colleagues, according to his office. "His exact message to us was: `Hold your fire.' He expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran.
"Two words: `Hell no!' ... We're going to do no such thing," the speaker said.
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.