Alaska News

Alaska's senators join in Republican tussling over Iran bill

WASHINGTON -- Alaska's U.S. senators joined in Republican infighting this week over a bill to allow congressional approval of a presidential deal on Iran sanctions this week, introducing amendments that, among others, threatened to tank the carefully negotiated bipartisan deal.

The Iran deal, ferried through the Senate by Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the committee's ranking member, Maryland Democrat Benjamin Cardin, attempts to rectify congressional discord over President Barack Obama's negotiations with Iran to slow its ability to build a nuclear bomb. The measure would require the administration to share classified details of any Iran deal with Congress, let Congress vote to approve the deal -- or withhold lifting sanctions -- and require presidential reports on Iran's compliance.

If an agreement is reached with Iran by the end of June -- lifting economic sanctions if and when the country dismantles its nuclear infrastructure -- Congress would get its say in the deal.

Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski introduced amendments that would influence the nuclear disarmament negotiations and lift the U.S. ban on exporting crude oil, respectively.

Despite a long effort led by Corker, several GOP senators refused to drop amendments to the bill that would likely lead to a veto from President Barack Obama. For the weekend, the Senate rests in a detente. Voting was halted after a closed-door lawmakers' lunch Thursday.

Senators were tight-lipped about the meeting, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could move to close off debate and move the bill as-is on Monday.

"I think it's fair to say -- without revealing the confidentiality of what we talked about at lunch -- there's a lot of folks that have a lot of ideas with regards to the Iran bill," Murkowski said in an interview Thursday afternoon. For now, efforts are focused on "trying to ferret out what moves to the top and what we just have to move beyond in an effort to advance this legislation," she said.

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Conflict came to a head Thursday when Sens. Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio tried to compel votes on their amendments, which would delay lifting Iran's economic sanctions and require Iran to recognize Israel.

Corker, in turn, called the amendments "poison pills" that would ultimately kill the bill he negotiated with Sen. Cardin in mid-April. The Senate does not have the votes to override a presidential veto.

Nevertheless, Alaska's senators offered their own priorities via amendments on the legislation, though Murkowski said she was more interested in bolstering interest in her issue than tanking the bill.

Sullivan, however, found the Iran bill insufficient, and on the floor Thursday, focused on one of his three amendments: to stop the President from lifting sanctions on Iran until it is clear the country is no longer a state sponsor of terrorism.

Sullivan was not deterred by claims that his amendment could be a "poison pill."

"I've thought long and hard about that. … Am I being unreasonable about this amendment?" he said on the Senate floor Thursday. His ultimate answer was no. "The most important job we have in this body is to do everything we can to keep citizens safe," he said, calling his position "reasonable."

Murkowski, meanwhile, filed an amendment that would lift the ban on exporting U.S. crude if the president reaches an agreement with Iran that would end ongoing sanctions that limit the Middle Eastern country's own export powers.

Ending the U.S. ban on exporting crude -- in place since the 1973 oil embargo -- has been a key focus for Murkowski, the chair of the Senate energy committee, over the past year.

Murkowski's amendment would lift the ban on U.S. crude oil exports 30 days after the bill is enacted and would require the Energy Department to submit a report to Congress within 60 days on how lifting sanctions on Iran would impact the amount of Iranian oil on the world market.

She called the two issues "perfectly teed up," saying that the "link between Iran sanctions and, effectively, domestic sanctions on our U.S. oil producers is one that people can look at and say, 'yeah, I can see how this works.'"

The ban on crude oil exports was put in place following the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which left the United States reeling from high prices and oil scarcity. The export ban only applies to crude, and there are exceptions -- largely from Alaska, including a recent shipment of North Slope crude to South Korea. Some crude goes to Canada every year.

Starting in 2011, the U.S. and the European Union enacted sanctions on Iran, limiting the oil-rich nation's ability to sell its top product and cutting the country's exports -- and revenues -- in half, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Currently, Iran can only sell crude oil to China, India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Taiwan.

The U.S. is likely to lift those sanctions if it -- along with the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany -- can reach a deal with Iran to end the country's nuclear weapons program. Iran has denied it is pursuing a bomb.

If the sanctions end, global markets would likely see another 700,000 to 1 million barrels a day more Iranian oil.

But Murkowski seemed comfortable allowing the Iran bill to move on without her amendments, quickly adding that "this is not the only opportunity for discussion of this issue." Most likely, the next major issue headed for the Senate floor is going to be focused on trade.

"We allow for unlimited export of our refined product," but nearly all export of U.S. crude oil has been banned for nearly four decades, Murkowski said.

Beyond attaching language lifting the export ban to trade legislation or a potential upcoming energy bill, Murkowski is working other angles to allow exemptions for the crude export ban. Largely that requires another country -- such as Japan, which imports from Iran -- asking the president to make policy changes for reasons of national security.

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Murkowski said the key issue is convincing citizens and her Washington colleagues that allowing unfettered crude exports won't affect prices at the pump, though the prospect also garners some opposition from some refiners, who want the oil for themselves, and environmentalists, who want the oil for nobody.

In reality, the price consumers pay at the pump is most significantly dictated by the international price of crude. And several reports have found that introducing more U.S. crude into international markets would lower the price of oil. That includes research by nonpartisan groups and government agencies such as Resources For the Future, The Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Government Accountability Office.

"There's only three things that we specifically prohibit exports (of) in this country," Murkowski said Thursday afternoon, walking through the halls of the Capitol. "The first is western red cedar... The second is horse meat for slaughter. And the third is crude."

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.

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