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on the hill

House Foreign Affairs passes MAHSA Act, with intentions to continue negotiations

The committee voted in a bipartisan manner in favor of the bill, but lawmakers indicated they expect to see further negotiations over and refinements to the legislation

Saverio Marfia/Getty Images

A new mural of Mahsa Amini is presented by artist Scott Marsh, on November 04, 2022 in Sydney, Australia.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday advanced the MAHSA Act, a bill aiming to increase sanctions on Iranian leadership, by a unanimous voice vote. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they intend to continue negotiations on the bill, which has been the subject of intensive talks and some disagreement leading up to yesterday’s vote.

The legislation, named for Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman who died in regime custody, sparking widespread protests, has 48 Republican and 42 Democratic cosponsors and was supported by AIPAC, the National Union for Democracy in Iran and United Against Nuclear Iran.

Ahead of the markup, HFAC Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) introduced an amendment that would have altered language in the original bill stating that the president “shall… impose” sanctions listed within the bill to instead state that the president “shall… pursue” the sanctions. The proposed change prompted backlash from some Republican lawmakers, Iranian diaspora activists and others who had been rallying support for the bill.

“The [McCaul amendment] dilutes [the bill] to such an extent that the administration or other administrations could simply not enforce the bill as Congress intended,” Rep. Cory Mills (R-FL) said during Wednesday’s meeting.

Mills said he negotiated with McCaul to introduce a compromise amendment that partially restored the original language — applying the “impose” language to congressionally approved statutory sanctions and the “pursue” language to sanctions imposed by presidential executive order.

The Florida congressman explained that there had been “constitutional concerns” around the “impose” language in the original bill, relating to questions about whether Congress can mandate the president enact sanctions issued under executive orders.

“Recognizing that there are legal ramifications for applying this forcing language to executive orders, my amendment does maintain the ‘pursue sanctions’ verbiage for those discretionary authorities,” he said. “It strengthens the bill to get to its original intent that we want.”

The Mills amendment addressed concerns among Republicans and activists about the bill, a congressional staffer involved in the talks told Jewish Insider.

HFAC Ranking Member Greg Meeks (D-NY) indicated, however, that he had reservations. Lawmakers said that they had been negotiating until 3 a.m. Wednesday.

Meeks said that he had thought “we had an agreement” with McCaul on the legislation “but… my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have sought to change the deal that we had negotiated.” He argued the Mills amendment “adds unnecessary rigidity to the text” and “will add confusion in its implementation.”

Meeks explained that he planned to vote for the bill “to allow it to continue to progress to a conference [committee] with the Senate,” but emphasized that he wanted to continue negotiations.

Meeks said his concerns included ensuring “that the legislative text will not harm this or any president’s ability to adjust to any potential national security event vis-a-vis Iran” and “streamline the reporting requirements to make them feasible for the [Office of Foreign Assets Control] and the Treasury Department to deliver to Congress.”

The staffer involved in the negotiations told JI that Meeks has sought to ensure that the bill would not eliminate the president’s authority to waive sanctions for national security reasons.

The debate over the bill language did not fall cleanly along partisan lines. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) indicated he was supportive of the original language in the bill, suggesting the changes proposed by McCaul and Mills were not needed. “I happen to believe we have the power to say ‘shall,’” Connolly said. “I think that’s in the Constitution.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who stood in for McCaul as HFAC chairman during debate over the MAHSA Act, promised that negotiations to address Meeks’ concerns would continue even after the committee approved the bill.

“I, for one, will pledge to the ranking member that we will — regardless of what we depart today with in the way of a base bill — that obviously we want to reach the language that was being worked on. I believe we’re close,” he said. “We’re going to go ahead and have the recorded vote with a recognition that… the goal will be to have the intention that both sides have agreed to.”

Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), the original sponsor of the MAHSA Act, thanked McCaul for his support in a statement as well as “Mills for working with me to preserve the strength of the bills’ intended sanctions.”

“I will be monitoring technical changes to the bill and I look forward to voting for its final passage on the House floor in the coming months,” Banks said.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JI that “all eyes will be on next steps in the legislative process and to ensure it is not watered down, but accountability for Iranian human rights violators and those who enable them appears to be on the way.”

Meeks separately proposed an amendment that would have limited the scope of the bill to apply only to Iranian individuals, to ensure that sanctions do “not extend to allies and partners around the globe.” Issa and Mills argued that Meeks’ amendment was overly restrictive and would exclude Iranian proxy groups like Hezbollah.

Meeks’ amendment was defeated by a voice vote, but Issa said he would be supportive of adding language to the committee’s report on the bill — an explanatory statement attached to a bill after it is voted out of committee — to provide further guidance to the administration.

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) proposed an amendment that would have added language to the bill noting that the Iranian supreme leader and many of the other Iranian officials targeted in the legislation are already heavily sanctioned under the authorities listed in the bill. 

That amendment was defeated by voice vote. Schneider and Mills said they would negotiate report language that would clarify that many of the individuals are already sanctioned but that further sanctions are necessary.

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