WASHINGTON (AP) — Defying President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner announced on Wednesday that he's invited Israel's prime minister to stand before Congress and push for new sanctions against its archenemy Iran.
Boehner's decision to bring Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint meeting of Congress on Feb. 11 seemed to catch the White House by surprise. And it added fuel to a drive by lawmakers from both parties to pass legislation calling for fresh penalties if there is no deal soon to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Barely sworn in, the new Republican-controlled Congress is already on a collision course with Obama over a major foreign policy issue. Obama has threatened to veto any new sanctions legislation, saying it could scuttle ongoing nuclear talks with Iran and heighten the risk of a military showdown.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday quoted an unidentified Israeli intelligence official as saying that adding sanctions now "would be like throwing a grenade into the process."
But Boehner is not backing down. He told a private meeting of GOP lawmakers that Congress would proceed on further penalties against Iran despite Obama's warning.
"He expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran," Boehner said. "Two words: 'Hell no!' ... We're going to do no such thing."
The Democrats' House leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, strongly disagreed. She said Obama has had diplomatic success in bringing countries together for the current economic sanctions aimed at stopping Iran's nuclear program. And she said it would be "irresponsible" for Congress to impose new penalties that "could undermine the negotiations and undermine the diplomatic coalition that is there — the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany."
The White House said Boehner's invitation also was a breach of diplomatic protocol. Traditionally, no administration would learn about a foreign leader's plan to visit the United States from the speaker of the House, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Said Boehner: "I don't believe I am poking anyone in the eye."
The invitation was a coordinated effort involving Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with staff discussions beginning last year, according to a senior Republican aide, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the private talks. Boehner contacted the Israeli ambassador on Jan. 8 to assess Netanyahu's interest and received a positive response.
Netanyahu stands to gain politically at home from the U.S. visit. He is in a tough fight to win re-election in Israel's upcoming March vote. Netanyahu's Likud Party is running behind the main opposition group headed by Yitzhak Herzog's Labor Party, which has been highlighting rancor in the country's critical relationship with the United States.
The image of Netanyahu addressing Congress — an infrequent honor for a world leader — could undercut his opposition's message. At the same time, he risks aggravating the tense relationship he currently has with the Obama administration.
Time could be running out to reach a deal with Iran, which says its nuclear program is peaceful and exists only to produce energy for civilian use. Talks have been extended until July, with the goal of reaching a framework for a deal by the end of March.
Just after Boehner announced that Netanyahu had been invited, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a three-hour hearing on the Iranian nuclear talks and the role of Congress.
Republicans and some Democrats on the committee argued that Iran is playing for time and that the U.S. and its international partners are inching closer to Iran's negotiating position. But other lawmakers agreed with the administration that it's best to let the negotiations play out.
Committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is pressing for legislation that would allow Congress to vote on any deal the U.S. and its international partners might reach with Tehran.
"I want these negotiations to be successful ... but just stiff-arming (Congress) . and saying, 'No, we really don't want you to play a role, we want you to just trust us,' is totally unacceptable from my standpoint," Corker said.
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., are pushing legislation that would impose heavier sanctions that would take effect if there's no deal.
That bill would not impose any new sanctions during the remaining timeline for negotiations. But if there's no deal, the sanctions that have been eased during the talks would be reinstated and Iran would face new punitive measures.
"Iran is clearly taking steps that can only be interpreted as provocative, yet the administration appears willing to excuse away any connection between these developments and signs of Iran's bad faith in negotiations," Menendez said.
Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state, said new sanctions legislation would not help and could provoke "Iran to walk away from the negotiating table."
He argued that the talks have halted Iran's rush toward larger stockpiles of enriched uranium and have led to more intrusive and frequent inspections. Blinken said the existing sanctions are stifling Iran's economy.
"Iran is well aware that an even sharper sword of Damocles hangs over its head. It needs no further motivation," he said.