WASHINGTON — More than half the senators in the U.S. Senate have signed on to a bill that would intensify sanctions against Iran. But in a sign of the so far successful effort by the White House to keep the bill from reaching a veto-busting 67 supporters, only 16 Democrats are on board.
The number of senators cosponsoring the bill, introduced by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), reached 58 this week, up from just 33 before the Christmas holiday break.
Notably, only one of the 25 who signed up in recent days — Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) — is a Democrat, a sign of intense White House lobbying among Democrats to oppose the bill.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama ardently opposed the sanctions.
“My preference is for peace and diplomacy, and this is one of the reasons why I’ve sent a message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions,” Obama said at the White House on Jan. 13, a day after Iran and major powers agreed on the terms of an interim six-month agreement that would lead to a final status deal preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“Now is the time for us to allow the diplomats and technical experts to do their work,” Obama said. “We will be able to monitor and verify whether or not the interim agreement is being followed through on, and if it is not, we’ll be in a strong position to respond.”
The intense jockeying over the bill comes as Iran and six world powers signed an agreement  implementing a plan that temporarily freezes Iran’s nuclear production.
The Joint Plan of Action, which was approved on Jan. 12, will go into effect on Jan. 20. Under the plan, first agreed to in November, Iran will freeze most of its nuclear enrichment capability, including not installing or starting up additional centrifuges. In return, the United States and five other world powers — Germany, Russia, England, France and China — will provide Iran with some economic sanctions relief. Iran also will allow new and more frequent inspections of its nuclear sites.
Last week, the White House said that backers of the bill should be upfront about the fact that it puts the United States on the path to war.
A number of pro-Israel groups, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are leading a full-court press for the bill’s passage, with prominent Jewish leaders in a number of states making calls and writing letters to holdouts. Dovish Jewish groups such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now oppose the bill.