Bipartisan Group in Congress asks Treasury Dept. to recall workers overseeing Iran sanctions

For the first time since most of the federal government shut down on Oct. 1, there appeared to be some hope on Capitol Hill on Friday that Congressional Republicans and President Obama could come to a compromise that will allow the federal government to be reopened, possibly in the coming days.

Such a deal – which could be coupled with a short-term lift to the country’s debt ceiling – would not just reopen National Parks and end the uncertainty facing those who depend on the federally funded WIC program. Ending the partial shutdown of the federal government will also bring back to work the approximately 175 employees who usually work in the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a little-known office that is tasked with overseeing the U.S.’s sanctions against Iran.

On Oct. 4, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that as a result of the shutdown, just 11 people were manning the OFAC office. 

For Rep. Brad Sherman (D – Calif.), restaffing that office can’t happen soon enough, which is why he, together with Rep. Ted Poe (R – Tex.) and a bipartisan group of 13 other representatives, sent a letter urging President Obama to bring “most if not all” of the furloughed employees back to their desks by declaring them to be “essential.”

“There’s nothing more essential than preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons and an important part of that is having an effective sanctions program,” Sherman told the Journal on Oct. 11.

The timing of the reduction in staff at OFAC is of particular concern, Sherman said. The partial government shutdown comes just weeks after the newly elected Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, launched a charm offensive during his recent trip to the United States.

Rouhani appears to be more moderate than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad; some have argued that Rouhani’s election is proof that sanctions against Iran are having an impact.

“There is no doubt that the sanctions are having an effect and causing the Iranian government to rethink its development of a nuclear weapons program,” Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D – Long Beach) said through a spokesman on Friday, explaining why he signed Sherman and Poe’s letter. “Due to these sanctions, the President of Iran has opened up discussions with the U.S. regarding their nuclear ambitions. I strongly support those discussions. Now is not the time to take any steps that might lessen the impacts of these sanctions.”

By Friday afternoon, many in Congress – including Sherman – were optimistic about Congress and the President reaching a deal in the coming days to allow all government operations to resume – including the workers at OFAC.

But some Democrats bristled at what they saw as Sherman breaking with the party’s strategy. Until recently, the Administration and the party’s leaders in Congress were blaming the shutdown on Republicans and opposing any attempts by the GOP to restart parts of the federal government on a piecemeal basis.

“There was a sense of annoyance with Sherman’s antics on this,” a Senior Democratic staffer at the Capitol told the Journal on Friday. “It was again evidence of his failure to be a team player and to undermine the broader House Democratic message on the shutdown.”

Sherman and Poe circulated their letter to all members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; of 21 Democrats, seven other members of Sherman’s party came aboard, including four from California.

Even Sherman acknowledged that some members of his party had “concern” about reopening some parts of the federal government without an overall budget deal. But he said that while Democrats had opposed legislation introduced by House Republicans that would restore funding to individual programs – the House passed bills to restore funding for everything from Head Start to Homeland Security, to little effect – Sherman said that his party had supported the executive branch’s making decisions as to which operations are “essential.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recalled nearly all the civilians who work at the Pentagon last week; Sherman argued that the 175 staffers who work at OFAC were no less essential to the country’s national security.

It’s a view shared by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – a spokesperson told the Journal that the pro-Israel lobby “absolutely” supported the Sherman, Poe letter – and by California Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D – Santa Monica), who sent a similar letter to President Obama. Signed by Assembly Speaker John Perez, Senate President Darrell Steinberg and a handful of other members of the state legislature, Bloom’s letter hammers home the same message: the federal government needs to do whatever it takes to get OFAC back to work.

“This is a national security issue,” Bloom told the Journal on Friday. “Just like the military personnel are continuing to work and doing their jobs, these folks need to be doing their jobs.”