In an effort to avoid Republican delay tactics, the Democratic majority has tended to skip over the whole conference process in recent years in favor of less formal means of reconciling House and Senate bills. In fact, while the 103rd Congress went to conference a total of 62 times, the 110th went just 10. So yesterday was a special occasion – Nearly five months into the year, the first conference committee of 2010 came together for – what else? – a discussion of sanctions on Iran.
“It’s been so long since I participated in a conference, I’m trying to remember how they work,” joked Chris Dodd, Chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. To that, House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank responded that the last time he and Dodd’s committees had met in conference, the Senate panel was chaired by Paul S. Sarbanes (House 1971-77, Senate 1977-2007).
“Well I feel better,” Dodd replied. “I thought you were going to tell me Alexander Hamilton.” Har har.
All joking aside, as CQ Today so aptly put it in this morning’s edition, “Conference committee members spent more time trying to one-up one another’s tough talk on Iran than discussing the differences between the two bills.”
Rubber meets the road on only one issue: The State Department’s request for broad waver authority to exempt “cooperating countries” from corporate sanctions. Some lawmakers chose to break from their biting language on Iran and vowed to fight against the main change that State wants the conference to make to the legislation.
Congressman Brad Sherman went so far as to say the department was asking Congress to “reward the fact that they have illegally ignored the law by writing provisions that allow them to do it legally.”
“The idea of country by country waivers is absurd,” Sherman said. “They will waive virtually every country unless they decide to simply ignore the law.”
Members of the administration have expressed that a waiver is necessary to ensure the support of China and Russia in concurrent bilateral sanctions negotiations – but Congress isn’t waiting.
“Iran and its spinning centrifuges do not wait. … We can no longer wait for a Security Council resolution that has been going on for months,” said Rep. Howard Berman.
In the end, the words of Rep. Ed Royce may have summed up the event:
“Even crushing sanctions might not do the job,” said Royce, “but we ought to try.”
The conference has stated the non-binding goal of finishing its work by May 28, but a final decision could come even sooner.