Sen. Mitch McConnell Blocks Iran Sanctions Vote

— David A. Harris

The actions today by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to block a vote on new Iran sanctions represents the Republican Party’s latest failure to take sanctioning Iran seriously. First it was Republican House members voting repeatedly against amendments that would have closed loopholes and strengthened sanctions. Now, McConnell is saying that the Senate GOP needs more time to study the legislation because he and members of his party want a clear declaration over the use of force.

The President and his Administration have repeatedly been crystal clear that military force is on the table to stop Iran. Perhaps McConnell missed that our Ambassador to Israel broadly said the military option is ‘ready’ and ‘fully available’ during a recent interview.

With all due respect, I must ask Senator McConnell — what kind of message does blocking a vote on strengthening sanctions send, particularly with negotiations rapidly approaching? We know how gridlocked the Senate is; why push this critical legislation back?

Reuters report follows the jump.
Reuters reported:

U.S. Senate Republicans blocked new economic sanctions on Iran’s oil sector on Thursday, saying they needed more time to study revisions, a surprise move that drew anger from Senate Democrats who had expected unanimous approval ahead of Iran talks on May 23.

‘I feel I’ve been jerked around,’ Democratic Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor after the Republican objection.

But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said his staff did not receive a draft of the bill until late on Wednesday night, and needed more time to make sure it was as strong as possible.

‘There is no reason in the world why we can’t resolve whatever differences we have and move forward,’ McConnell said. ‘We certainly don’t want to take a step backward, and there are members on my side of the aisle who are concerned that the way the measure is currently crafted could actually be a step in the wrong direction,’ McConnell said….

Democrats wanted to pass the proposed penalties ahead of talks between world powers and Iran next week, and had support from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobby group.

But Republicans sought a stronger statement in the bill that the use of U.S. military force was an option.

New Republican Budget Guts Medicare, Social Safety Net

Today, House Republicans unveiled their new budget that — like their budget from last year — fails to address America’s budget needs responsibly or preserve vital social safety net programs.

Last year, several Jewish community organizations and leaders expressed deep concern about the Republicans’ budget proposals. The GOP’s budget this year contains similar policies that only amplify the Republican Party’s message that it does not support the programs supported by the mainstream of the American Jewish community.

Indeed, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Associate Director Mark Pelavin said:

As an affirmation of our national priorities, the budget is inherently and inescapably a moral document. We support, and have long supported, a federal budget that reflects our solemn moral obligation to guard the most vulnerable in our society. House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), however, has chosen a different path. By ending the entitlement status of Medicaid and Medicare, fundamentally altering the tax system, and slashing spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and education programs, the Ryan plan would turn our backs on our obligation to care for all Americans.

More after the jump.
And JTA reported on the Jewish reaction to this year’s budget:

Jewish groups are among dozens of religious denominations and organizations endorsing a ‘Faithful Budget’ in opposition to the Republican budget proposal, which would cut Medicaid spending and disproportionately shift Medicare costs to fixed-income seniors….

‘During this time of great need in this country, it is essential that we lift our collective voices to speak to the social and ecological challenges our nation faces,’ Rabbi David Saperstein, executive director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement. ‘The Faithful Budget begins that effort.’…

‘The proposal before the House Budget Committee would cut spending for and reduce access to SNAP and other critical human needs programs,’ Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said in a statement. ‘We should not balance the federal budget on the backs of the most vulnerable. Instead, we should be offering them support to help them get back on their feet and get our economy back on track.’

In addition, B’nai B’rith International President Allan Jacobs noted in a statement that ‘the proposals would shift costs to Medicare beneficiaries while cutting programs that make critical investments for the poorest Americans who are least able to absorb these cuts.’

‘We shouldn’t be asking those with the fewest resources to give first,’ said Jacobs.

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said about the GOP’s budget plan:

The House budget once again fails the test of balance, fairness, and shared responsibility.  It would shower the wealthiest few Americans with an average tax cut of at least $150,000, while preserving taxpayer giveaways to oil companies and breaks for Wall Street hedge fund managers. What’s worse is that all of these tax breaks would be paid for by undermining Medicare and the very things we need to grow our economy and the middle class – things like education, basic research, and new sources of energy. And instead of strengthening Medicare, the House budget would end Medicare as we know it, turning the guarantee of retirement security into a voucher that will shift higher and higher costs to seniors over time.

Reuters contrasted the Republicans’ approach with the plans supported by President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats:

Where Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthy and boost near-term spending on infrastructure and education, the Republicans want to cut taxes and spending on healthcare and social safety net programs – benefits used more by the poor and middle classes….

The Republican budget achieves much of its deficit-reduction goals through savings gained by dismantling Obama’s 2010 healthcare reform law and by turning social safety net programs like food stamps and the Medicaid program for the poor into block grants for states.

The Republicans’ latest budget ends Medicare as we know it by replacing long-standing guaranteed retirement program with a voucher system that will leave future seniors to cover extra costs. Reuters noted the key difference between the Republicans’ plan and the plan supported by the President:

Future retirees would get an allowance to help them buy healthcare insurance. They would be able to choose private insurance plans or traditional Medicare, both of which would be offered on a special exchange. This is a slight change from Ryan’s proposal last year, which was met with loud criticism from Democrats and retiree groups. Outside experts estimated out-of-pocket expenses for the elderly would have risen by about $6,000 a year under Ryan’s Medicare reforms unveiled a year ago.

Obama’s budget calls for Medicare savings, but mostly by cutting payments to medical providers, not beneficiaries.

Think Progress noted that the Republicans’ budget also calls for the repeal of key provisions of the Affordable Care Act. In particular, the Republicans aim to:

  • Repeal the ban on discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions
  • Repeal tax credits that prevent health care costs from ravaging an individual’s income
  • Roll back the expansion of Medicaid to those living poverty

Click here to read Think Progress’ analysis. And click here to read their list of the “Top Five Worst Things About the House GOP’s Budget.”

The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer analyzed the Republican budget’s impact on the social safety net:

Over the next decade, Ryan would spend 30 percent less than the White House on ‘income security’ programs for the poor – that’s everything from food stamps to housing assistance to the earned-income tax credit. (Ryan’s budget would spend $4.8 trillion over this timeframe; the White House’s would spend $6.8 trillion.) Compared with Obama, Ryan would spend 38 percent less on transportation and 24 percent less on veterans. He’d spend 20 percent less on ‘General science, space, and basic technology.’ And, compared with the White House, he’d cut ‘Education, training, employment, and social services’ by a full 44 percent.

Click here to read Plumer’s analysis of the Republican budget. Click here to learn why Plumer’s colleague Ezra Klein considers the GOP budget to be unrealistic.  

In addition, Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin discovered that the budget contains cuts to the foreign aid budget-cuts that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the pro-Israel community have long opposed:

[A]pparently Ryan does not believe diplomacy and development are part of that tool kit, because his proposal would see the international affairs account slashed from $47.8 billion in fiscal 2012 to $43.1 billion in fiscal 2013, $40.1 billion in fiscal 2014, $38.3 billion in fiscal 2015, and $38.1 billion in fiscal 2016. The State Department and USAID wouldn’t see their budget get back to current levels until after 2022 if Ryan were to have his way….

‘The Ryan budget fails to recognize that diplomacy and development are essential to protecting our national security, alongside defense,’ said House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Howard Berman (D-CA). ‘In his own words, Chairman Ryan sets up a choice: “decline as a world power vs. renewed American leadership.” But by viewing the choice exclusively in terms of military spending, he cuts the very resources that would make strong and effective U.S. international leadership a reality. The Republican budget would take us down the road of decline as a world power.’

After examining the budget, the editorial boards of The New York Times and The Washington Post slammed the latest GOP budget. According to The Times:

As he rolled out his 2013 budget on Tuesday, Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, correctly said that he and his fellow Republicans were offering the country a choice of two very clear futures. The one he outlined in his plan could hardly be more bleak.

It is one where the rich pay less in taxes than the unfairly low rates they pay now, while programs for the poor – including Medicaid and food stamps – are slashed and thrown to the whims of individual states. Where older Americans no longer have a guarantee that Medicare will pay for their health needs. Where lack of health insurance is rampant, preschool is unaffordable, and environmental and financial regulation are severely weakened.

Mr. Ryan became well known last year as the face of the most extreme budget plan passed by a house of Congress in modern times. His new budget is, if anything, worse, full of bigger, emptier promises. It is largely in agreement with the plans of the Republican presidential candidates….

These extreme cuts and changes would greatly impede the nation’s economic recovery, and hurt those on the middle and lower economic rungs who suffered most from the recession. The contrast with President Obama’s budget, which raises taxes on the rich to protect vital programs while reducing the deficit, could not be more clear.

Click here to read The Times’ editorial.

Noting the criticism that has come from observers and experts alike, The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent succinctly summarized the newest GOP budget by writing:

[T]he verdict is in: Paul Ryan’s budget is a blueprint for radical right-wing economic extremism and a monumental con job.


Increased Sanctions Continue to Pressure Iran’s Economy

— Max Samis

It has been several weeks since President Barack Obama first increased sanctions on Iran, effectively cutting off Iran’s central bank from the global economy. To this point, the evidence is overwhelming that these sanctions have had a strong effect on Iran’s economy and government.

Previously a major importer of steel, Iranian steel traders have found their business “grinding to a halt.”

More after the jump.
According to Reuters:

Iranian buyers cannot obtain dollars or euros, forcing them to offer letters of credit in alternative currencies such as the Indian rupee, Korean won and Russian rubles.

Most steel traders, wary of currency risk and taxation issues, are not willing to accept this form of payment.

‘Now you can really feel the effects of the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe…It is very difficult to do any business with Iran at the moment,’ a steel trader at a Swiss metals trading house said.

Perhaps even more importantly, the Iranian oil flow has taken a massive hit. Reuters wrote:

Iran could be forced to place unsold barrels into floating storage or even shut in production in the second half of this year, the IEA said on Friday in its monthly Oil Market Report.

‘International sanctions targeting Iran’s existing oil exports do not come into effect until July 1, but they are already having an impact on crude trade flows in Europe, Asia and the Middle East,’ it said.

‘Although there are five months before restrictions on existing contracts take effect, European customers have already curtailed imports of Iranian crude and Asian buyers are lining up alternative sources of supply,’ the IEA said, adding that European customers were likely to look to Russia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia for replacement barrels.

Bloomberg added that owners of over 100 supertankers have now said they will stop loading oil supplies from Iran.

In an interview with Haaretz, Dennis Ross, Obama’s former Middle East advisor, stated that ‘The fact is [Iran’s] currency has devalued by half in the last six weeks… I’d say sanctions are working, if that’s the case.’ Haaretz wrote:

These sanctions, Ross said, are the crippling sanctions Israel has called for, and can affect Iran’s behavior. When the Iranians feel they are under sufficient pressure, they look for a way to reduce it, Ross said, and right now they are under pressure they have not been under before. ‘It’s not an accident that suddenly they want to meet with the P5 +1,’ Ross said, referring to the forum of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.

Ross also stated his belief that sanctions are forcing Iran to the negotiating table in an op-ed in The New York Times. Ross wrote:

Iran cannot do business with or obtain credit from any reputable international bank, nor can it easily insure its ships or find energy investors. According to Iran’s oil ministry, the energy sector needs more than $100 billion in investments to revitalize its aging infrastructure; it now faces a severe shortfall.

New American penalties on Iran’s central bank and those doing business with it have helped trigger an enormous currency devaluation. In the last six weeks, the Iranian rial has declined dramatically against the dollar, adding to the economic woes Iran is now confronting…

Now, with Iran feeling the pressure, its leaders suddenly seem prepared to talk. Of course, Iran’s government might try to draw out talks while pursuing their nuclear program. But if that is their strategy, they will face even more onerous pressures, when a planned European boycott of their oil begins on July 1.

As sanctions continue to take effect, international pressure will only continue to increase against Iran’s nuclear program.