Dems block spending bill in dispute over Iran nuclear deal
Democrats on Wednesday blocked the Senate's first spending bill of the year in a last-minute fight over a Republican effort to undercut the Iran nuclear deal and scuttle U.S. plans to buy Iranian "heavy water."
Still seething over last year's international pact, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., offered an amendment to the energy and water bill that would thwart the Obama administration if it tries to buy more heavy water from Iran. The administration completed an $8.6 million deal to buy 32 metric tons of heavy water from Iran last Friday.
The sale will help Iran meet the terms of last year's landmark deal in which Iran agreed to curb its atomic program in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Heavy water is a key component for one kind of nuclear reactor.
Democrats called the amendment a "poison pill" that would draw a veto from President Barack Obama.
A vote to move forward with the energy and water bill failed to reach 60 votes needed to continue, falling short 50-46.
Unclear is what the impact will be on the appropriations process as Congress struggles to complete the 12 spending bills without divisive fights over policy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has repeatedly made an orderly appropriations process his No. 1 goal for 2016, a key element in his election-year effort to show voters that Republicans can govern. That effort may now be in jeopardy, while over in the House, new GOP Speaker Paul Ryan has failed to accomplish the even more elementary task of passing a budget to serve as an appropriations blueprint, due to divisions in his party.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said lawmakers were blindsided by Cotton's amendment, adding that the proposal breaks a bipartisan agreement not to include controversial riders in the spending bill.
"Why can't he wait?" to put the amendment on a separate bill that is not part of the appropriations process, asked Feinstein.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of an energy and water subcommittee, said Cotton was "entirely within his rights" to offer the amendment. Alexander and other lawmakers faulted the administration for failing to explain the heavy water sale and give lawmakers a head-up before it went through.
"This was announced without any (advance) notification" to relevant committees, such as the Senate Foreign Relations and Energy committees, Alexander said.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration was gratified that the amendment didn't advance and took a swipe at Cotton, who last year antagonized the White House with a Senate GOP letter to Iranian leaders saying any deal with could be undone by his successor.
"Senator Cotton is certainly no expert when it comes to heavy water," Earnest said. "I'm confident that he couldn't differentiate heavy water from sparkling water. His focus is on undermining the effective implementation of this agreement that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
A sales agreement between the Energy Department and a subsidiary of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, under which the Energy Department's Isotope Program purchased the heavy water for $8.6 million, was signed in Vienna on Friday, officials said. The heavy water will be stored at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and then resold on the commercial market for research purposes.
Heavy water, formed with a hydrogen isotope, is not radioactive but has research and medical applications and can also be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Under the nuclear deal, Iran is allowed to use heavy water in its modified Arak nuclear reactor, but must sell any excess supply of both heavy water and enriched uranium on the international market.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said a "fuller, earlier briefing" by the administration would have helped address lawmakers' concerns.
(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)