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Senate panel approves Iran sanctions bill

January 29, 2015 GMT
FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2015 file photo, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. A bill that would levy tough new sanctions on Iran if it fails to sign an agreement to curb its nuclear program cleared a Senate committee on Thursday. But lawmakers are holding off on a full Senate vote to see whether diplomatic negotiations yield a deal. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2015 file photo, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. A bill that would levy tough new sanctions on Iran if it fails to sign an agreement to curb its nuclear program cleared a Senate committee on Thursday. But lawmakers are holding off on a full Senate vote to see whether diplomatic negotiations yield a deal. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A bill that would levy tough new sanctions on Iran if it fails to sign an agreement to curb its nuclear program cleared a U.S. Senate committee on Thursday. But lawmakers are holding off on a full Senate vote to see whether diplomatic negotiations yield a deal.

Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee voted 18-4 to pass the bill aimed at ramping up economic pressure on Iran starting in July if it doesn’t sign an international deal preventing it from having the capability to develop a nuclear weapon.

Republicans still can move ahead, but that’s unlikely without Democratic support. They wouldn’t have enough votes to override President Barack Obama, who says he’ll veto the legislation because it would derail the diplomatic effort to reach a deal.

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The U.S. and other nations negotiating with Tehran have long suspected Iran’s nuclear program is secretly aimed at atomic weapons capability. Tehran insists the program is entirely devoted to civilian purposes.

Talks with Tehran have been extended until July, with the goal of reaching a framework for a deal by the end of March. Iran’s state-run IRNA news service said Wednesday that Iranian lawmakers have proposed a bill that would scuttle the diplomatic effort if the U.S. imposed new U.S. sanctions.

A movement to levy more sanctions to cripple the Iranian economy had been moving fast in Congress. But on Tuesday, Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat who co-authored the measure with Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, and nine other Democrats told Obama in a letter that they wouldn’t push the bill at least until the end of March.

The bill would not impose any new sanctions during the remaining timeline for negotiations. It says that if there is no deal by July 6, the sanctions that were eased during negotiations would be reinstated. After that, sanctions would be stepped up every month.

The committee voted to amend the bill to include a statement that Israel, an archenemy of Iran, has a right to defend itself. Other amendments to the bill that passed allow Congress to vote on any deal approved with Iran; beef up reporting requirements for verifying that Iran is complying with any agreement reached and task the Treasury Department to report on the economic impact of sanctions relief on Iran.

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner fueled the rising friction between Congress and the White House by announcing that he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress March 3 and push for new sanctions. A group of Democrats is trying to get Boehner to postpone the address.

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Associated Press writer Julie Pace contributed to this report.