Washington, 24 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Led by members of President Bill Clinton's own Democratic Party, the U.S. House of Representatives served notice Tuesday that it will challenge Clinton's veto of a measure that would impose sanctions on Russia because of its alleged involvement in Iran's ballistic missile program.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry told reporters Tuesday that Clinton vetoed the Iran Missile Proliferation Act and sent it back to the House of Representatives. McCurry says the measure puts what he called shackles on the president's ability to conduct foreign policy.
Both chambers of the Congress, the 100-member Senate and the 435-member House of representatives passed the bill. The Senate's vote in May was 90-4. The House vote two weeks ago was 392-22. Since the measure originated in the House, procedure requires the president to return the bill to the lower chamber.
The legislation was largely the work of House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-New York). Gilman was angered by persistent reports that Russia and private Russian companies were supplying Iran with sophisticated technology that could be used to develop missiles. The U.S. does not have diplomatic ties with Iran and regards it as a supporter of international terrorism.
Congressman Howard Berman and several other House Democrats declared Tuesday that they will fight to override Clinton's veto of the legislation.
Congress has the right to try and override a presidential veto. However, that is a difficult parliamentary maneuver. Despite the margin of victory for the sanctions bill, there is no guarantee that the measure would receive the required two-thirds majority the second time around.
The vote would come first in the House, and if it fails to record a two-thirds majority there, it would automatically die in the current session, which ends in January. If it passes the House again, it still must achieve a two-thirds majority in the Senate or it will die there. If it passes both houses, it would become law over the president's objections.
However, the White House has powerful lobbying tools at its disposal. Many members of Congress may be reluctant to directly challenge Clinton on a foreign policy issue, since foreign policy is often viewed as a presidential prerogative.
Congressman Berman said the sanctions bill "is focused solely on preventing proliferation, and there is no doubt that Iran is doing everything possible, despite President Khatami's pursuit of more moderate domestic policies, to buy the technology to make its own nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles."
Berman said that "ignoring Iran's secret programs won't make them go away." And he said that, "waiving sanctions because our allies don't like them won't make the problem disappear."
McCurry, however, said there are already U.S. laws in effect that enable the president to impose sanctions on countries and private enterprises that do business with Iran. He said the congressional sanctions measure also ignores the work that the U.S. and Russia have done over the past several months to curb sales to Iran and that it would prevent future U.S.-Russian cooperation on this issue.
"The argument is it's a very -- and, well, twofold -- and please look at the whole argument -- but essentially that there is no flexibility in the act passed by Congress, that allows the president to work through problems. There is no recognition of the fact that we have made some progress working with the Russian Federation, on exactly this issue; and in a sense, by tying the president's hands now, we wouldn't be able to continue our successful diplomatic work with the Russians on exactly this problem; third, that the threshold set for imposition of sanctions is so low that you could conceivably have situations in the future in which the United States government might improperly or incorrectly impose sanctions, which then would cast out on the credibility of all the sanctions regimes that we maintain; and lastly and very importantly, that these sanctions regimes generally -- because they are efforts by Congress to micromanage and legislate outcomes without regard for the facts at the time that we are dealing with the problem -- produce hopeless shackles on the presidency, as he conducts the conduct of this nation's foreign policy. "
McCurry said missile technology proliferation is the subject of ongoing U.S.-Russian discussions. And he says the U.S. has received, "good commitments from them to work on this issue with us."
There was no immediate word when the House will schedule a vote on the veto override.