Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's negotiating talents are being put to the test as he tries to cut a deal that would authorize President Barack Obama to use military force in the campaign against the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS.
“I’m a pretty good negotiator,” he said in a June interview in his Senate office. “In a former life I’m a former speaker of a state legislature, which was a lot of negotiations, and as a lawyer I’ve negotiated a lot of deals.”
It’s what he says helped him seal an early victory in his three-month tenure as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the still-moving Iran nuclear deal. Since taking over for Sen. Robert Menendez on April 2 — the day after the Justice Department indicted the New Jersey Democrat on bribery and corruption charges — Cardin is trying to settle into his prestigious new post and has yet to make a recommendation to the Senate Democratic leadership on a workable plan for ISIS legislation.
“Obviously I did not want to become ranking member under these circumstances and became ranking member during a pretty explosive time as the president announced the framework agreement for Iran,” he explained. “I had less than two weeks to put together an agreement that could satisfy the Democrats and the White House, and so I didn’t have any time for transition or understanding my resources as ranking member, but instead I just had to work to get something to done.
“I was able to bring about a good bill that made our country stronger, made the president in a stronger position to negotiate, and the right role for Congress,” he said. “I was very proud to be able to do that.”
His hometown newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, heralded it as a major victory and captured a blissful Cardin addressing reporters after the committee voted. The president had threatened to veto the legislation under Menendez, but Cardin’s deal sailed through the committee, and the president signed it.
One of Cardin’s longtime best friends, House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer, began serving elective office with him in Maryland state politics almost a half-century ago — Hoyer was the youngest state Senate president in history and Cardin became the youngest speaker of the House of Delegates.
“Ben’s strengths are a very, very keen intellect and a collegial bent; he works with people well,” Hoyer said, adding that the administration and the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., found him credible and trustworthy. Hoyer said that comes from years of dealing with a range of diverse groups.
“I’d like to see him as chair of the Finance Committee,” Hoyer said, should the Democrats take back the majority — and because it’s possible Menendez could retake his post if cleared in the probe.
But unlike Menendez, who split with the administration over the emerging deal on Iran (as well as the recent tangle over opening up Cuba), Cardin has hewed closer to the White House on most major foreign issues, and his statements reflect that. He, too, has a close relationship with Corker, but he’s approaching his role a bit differently.
“Oh, come on, I’m loved by Republicans,” he joked. “I had dinner with a Republican six months ago, so we’re good.”
For Cardin, the trickier part of the job is navigating what has become more treacherous ground between the Obama administration and the Democrats on his committee, particularly over the authorization for use of military force for Iraq and Syria.
“There’s general consensus in Congress that we should pass authorization,” he said in the interview. “There is not, at this moment, a working majority for any common position on this. Can it be achieved? Maybe. It’s possible.”
What’s stalling him is the administration’s insistence that it has the legal authorization it needs already, though the White House has laid out its own starting point for an ISIS-specific authorization package. Six weeks before rising to ranking member, Cardin joined with another committee member, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., on proposed legislation to sunset the 2001 authorization for President George W. Bush’s mission following the 9/11 attacks. At the time, he complained the law in place set up a state of perpetual war and provided Obama and future presidents with a blank check to continue it; the measure was similar to one the committee passed in December.
Most Democrats are also keen to limit the president's ability to wage a ground war, while many Republican hawks don't want to tie the commander in chief's hands.
Since taking the committee’s reins for his party, Cardin says there's been a lack of urgency by both the administration and Senate leadership on both sides of the aisle.
“The Democratic leadership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is trying to find a sweet spot for all of us, what we can do,” he said. “We’re in that process. We have not made a recommendation to our leadership at this stage, we have not. We have not asked them for support for an authorization of the use of military force.”
Cardin said he speaks with top Obama administration officials daily, but that doesn't mean he's a rubber stamp for the president.
“We can’t conduct foreign policy,” he said of the Senate. “It’s up to the administration. … I’m a firm believer that we can help the administration, we can give the tools it needs, we can put a spotlight on things so that they can act, I can bully them to do things.”
Alongside the AUMF debate, Cardin and Corker are trying to pass a State Department authorization this year but believe it will take a couple of years to succeed.
“My No. 1 passion, though, would be human rights,” he said. “Every aspect of what I do as ranking member will be to strengthen our commitment to advancing human rights.”
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