New Top Dem on Foreign Relations Offers Cautious Support for Iran Bill

The new top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday offered guarded support for high-profile legislation on Iran that is scheduled to be voted on shortly after Congress returns from its recess.

Minority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday announced that Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., would succeed Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., as ranking member on Foreign Relations. The day before, the New Jersey lawmaker announced he would temporarily give up his leadership position on the panel after he was indicted on federal corruption charges.

Asked for his thoughts on becoming the new ranking Democrat, Cardin told CQ Roll Call, “It’s important that we work as hard as possible for unity to give this country the strongest possible position in foreign policy.”

Cardin in the interview said he “always supported a congressional review” of the nuclear deal now being announced by negotiators in Switzerland.

Asked if he backed moving forward with the previously scheduled April 14 committee markup of legislation (S 625) to forbid the White House from lifting congressionally imposed sanctions without lawmakers’ approval, Cardin, the junior senator from Maryland, said, “Depends on what we mark up. We’re looking at the legislation and we’re listening to the administration's concerns.

“I think that the administration will never agree that Congress should have a role. I think Congress should have a role.  . . . Therefore there is going to be a philosophical difference, but we have to make sure whatever we do is constructive for the president in negotiating.”

Cardin, who has spent close to half a century in elected office, said the exact language of the framework deal with Iran would be important in influencing his position. He said he is looking at three things in particular: the amount of time it would take Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon if it decided to break out of the deal; verification requirements that Tehran is honoring the accord; and having the ability to automatically “snap back” international and domestic sanctions if Iran is determined to be in breach of the agreement.

“This is what I told the administration,” Cardin said. “That is what I am going to be judging.”

By custom, the scheduling of committee markups is done at the agreement of the chairman and ranking member. It was a tradition that Menendez observed when he oversaw the committee and one that Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has followed since taking over in January.

Impact on Corker-Menendez Bill

While some details of the nuclear deal are now emerging, world powers and Iran have until June 30 to finish up technical negotiations and complete the agreement. President Barack Obama has promised to veto the legislation from Corker and Menendez. Critics argue that the bill inserts doubt into the minds of foreign negotiators about whether the United States can be relied on to honor the commitments it makes at the so-called “P-5+1” talks.

A senior Republican congressional staffer said with Menendez no longer able to occupy the leadership position he has played in recent years on rallying Democratic support for Iran bills, there might be some new “hurdles to clear” for the Corker-Menendez measure.

“If, for whatever reason, Menendez can’t continue his long-standing leadership role on Iran, I’m also certain another Democrat will take up the banner,” the staffer said on condition of anonymity.

While Cardin has offered conditional support for Corker-Menendez and for a sister sanctions bill (S 269) sponsored by Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., it is not at all clear whether he will adopt the role of caustic critic of Obama's foreign policy that Menendez so often played on issues related to Iran and Cuba.

“I think that Cardin will be much more in keeping” with the White House’s preference for strategic patience on issues related to Iran, said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow focusing on national security at the liberal Center for American Progress.

Korb predicted that Menendez would no longer be able to play the leadership role on Iran issues, a proposition that was rejected by a Democratic Senate aide.

“Does this affect the markup in two weeks of the Corker-Menendez bill,” the staffer said. “No, I don’t think so. It will all come down to where we are with negotiations. That is going to determine everything.”

Cardin has argued that Congress has the right to counter executive agreements that the president enters into with other countries, such as the one being negotiated now with Iran. These agreements do not technically constitute treaties, which must come before the Senate for ratification.

Cardin on AUMF, Ukraine, Russia, Cuba

In December, Cardin voted in favor of an authorization for use of military force, sponsored by Menendez, that would restrict the use of American ground combat troops and expire in three years. The resolution went nowhere with Republicans poised to take over control of the chamber, but many Democrats felt the vote was important so they could be on record with their policy position.

At a March hearing, Cardin said he was concerned that the language used in the White House’s proposed authorization to limit “enduring offensive ground combat operations” was too vague and could allow a repeat of operations such as that seen in the last decade in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Baltimore native is in favor of modifying the expansive 2001 military authorization against al-Qaida. He and Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., have introduced legislation (S 526) that would sunset the 2001 AUMF after three years.

Cardin is also supportive of the United States supplying the Ukrainian government with “lethal defensive weapons so that they can protect their borders,” he told CQ Roll Call. “But it’s got to be defensive weapons.”

The White House says it is still considering whether to supply such arms to Kiev.

Cardin, the former head of the Helsinki Commission, worked with its current chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, to successfully insert a non-binding amendment to the Senate Budget Resolution passed before the recess to strengthen the 2012 Magnitsky Act by expediting the identification for sanctioning of more foreign nationals involved in human rights violations.

“This amendment puts Russia’s corrupt officials and human rights violators on notice that the United States will continue to hold those who commit these violations accountable, even when their own country fails to act,” Cardin said in a written statement.

In his role on the Finance Committee, Cardin previously worked to include human rights protections in trade agreements.

Probably the most significant point of foreign policy divergence from Menendez will be Cardin’s stance on the Obama administration’s reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

As Congress’ highest-ranking Cuban-American Democratic lawmaker, Menendez was unstinting in his criticism of administration plans to engage with the Castro regime and to ease trade and travel restrictions to the country.

“I think that we have to look for a new path without compromising our ability to challenge Cuba’s human rights violations and its lack of a democratic system,” said Cardin, who is also the ranking member of the subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity. “But I think having more contacts with Cuba makes sense.”