Washington, DC (December 22, 2010) - Congress passed a stripped down version of its annual defense policy bill today, following months of obstruction by Senators who objected to several provisions originally incorporated in the bill, including signature measures endorsed by the White House on immigration and US policy regarding gays in the military.
With just days before adjournment, House and Senate leaders were forced to expedite the defense bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), by using special parliamentary procedures. In the Senate, the bill had to be passed by unanimous consent - meaning that a single Senator's objections could block the bill - while in the House it had to advance by suspension vote, which requires a two-thirds majority rather than a simple majority to pass. As a result, Congressional leaders compromised many legislative priorities that had been included in the original NDAA, including the Dream Act and repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," as well as a provision important to Iranian students studying in the United States.
NIAC strongly supported that provision, which would require the Obama administration to study how to increase educational opportunities for Iranian students and to investigate the single-entry visa problem. Iranian students can only receive single-entry visas, meaning they cannot leave the country or return to see the family they left behind, even if a loved one falls ill, without losing their visa status and putting their education and future in jeopardy.
NIAC, has led advocacy efforts in Congress, the White House, and the State Department to win a multiple-entry visa for Iranian students, and has worked with Iranian Americans and student groups on a grassroots campaign in this regard. That campaign led the Senate to include the reporting requirement for Iranian students as part of a larger Iran Engagement Report in the NDAA. Although Congress ultimately removed the provision as part of efforts to avoid a Republican filibuster of the NDAA, it could still include the reporting requirement in next year's NDAA or other legislation.
Separately, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was passed over the weekend as a standalone bill, while consideration of the Dream Act was blocked by on a 55-41 vote, falling five votes short of the supermajority needed to end a filibuster.
Two Iran-related measures were retained in the final NDAA - one, a measure in support of diplomacy to prevent naval conflicts between the US and Iranian navies, was strongly supported by NIAC. The other would require a report on a military strategy to counter Iran. NIAC has opposed any such public efforts that could increase the likelihood of a military confrontation with Iran.
The NIAC-supported Incidents at Sea measure will require the State and Defense Departments to study the benefits of negotiating an Incidents at Sea agreement "aimed at preventing accidental naval conflict in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz" between the US and Iranian navies. That requirement is based off a bipartisan, NIAC-supported resolution introduced by Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Geoff Davis (R-KY) and supported by 35 other Members of Congress.
The American and Iranian navies frequently operate nearby in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, but have little to no communication and lack formal protocols for operating in close quarters. Similar Incidents at Sea agreements were struck between US and the Soviet Union to prevent naval incidents from turning deadly during the Cold War. The Conyers/Davis resolution represented rare bipartisan support for diplomatic engagement with Iran.
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