WASHINGTON -- Of all the senators on the fence about the deal President Barack Obama struck with world powers on Iran’s nuclear program, perhaps none is being more closely scrutinized than Ben Cardin.
The Maryland Democrat is known by colleagues as good-natured and thoughtful, not prone to shouldering the pressure of high-pitched legislative battles. But that’s precisely where he finds himself in August as the president’s biggest foreign policy initiative gets ready for a tough vote in Congress.
Officials in the administration and on the Hill say that Cardin, more than almost any other senator, has the capacity to alter perceptions of the deal. Unlike his more hawkish colleagues, his position is likely to be perceived as more merit-based than political. And because he occupies the post of ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- the committee with chief oversight of the diplomatic efforts to engage Iran -- the symbolism of his endorsement or rejection will be amplified.
“If there is ever a game changer, it will be when somebody announces that they are going to vote in an unexpected way,” explained Aaron Keyak, managing director and co-founder of the firm Bluelight Strategies and former interim executive director for the National Jewish Democratic Council. “If there will ever be a change in that reality, someone like Cardin will have to come out against the deal. ... There are other senators who are looking to him and it will have a greater impact if he does something unexpected.”
Those following the political fate of the deal profess cluelessness about where Cardin is currently leaning. One top congressional aide -- who, like others, agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the talks -- expected Cardin to back the agreement since he’s balked at military confrontation in the past, notably voting against the Iraq War authorization in 2002. Another anticipated he’d oppose the deal because of his status as one of the top-ranking Jewish lawmakers.
“I think he is genuinely torn and doesn’t know which way to go,” said a third senate Democratic aide.
That he's ended up the focal point of intense speculation is, in part, by chance. Cardin, who has served in Congress since 1987, only became the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) stepped down from that post following his indictment for allegedly taking donor kickbacks for political favors.
Menendez, a vehement critic of the diplomatic entreaty with Iran, speculated that the administration wanted him out of the post. But Cardin wasn't exactly a pushover. Rather than upend a campaign to give Congress more oversight on the Iran deal, he worked with Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to modify the proposal. The resulting legislation met many of the administration's demands. But the simple act of giving lawmakers a vote on the final nuclear agreement was a concession the president didn't want to make.
"People felt he was an honest broker during that and we had good communications," conceded a senior administration official.
Now fully in the congressional oversight period that he himself negotiated, Cardin is coy about where he stands. And his office would offer only the usual, unhelpful bromides to explain his thinking: “He’s studying the details,” “reading everything there is to read” and “reaching out to the experts” while also “talking to his constituents” before making up his mind.
“He is certainly being lobbied on all sides,” said Sue Walitsky, his spokesperson. “He has joked he has talked to the president more in the last few months than all presidents before that combined.”
Even though there is mounting pressure for him to weigh in sooner, Cardin likely won't make a decision until after Labor Day, Walitsky said. And that alone has supporters worried. The conventional wisdom is that lawmakers should and will vote their conscious and not at the behest of any specific interest group or colleague. But the lobbying campaign against the agreement is better financed and well placed.
Sen. Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) opposition to the deal, in particular, has spooked supporters. Though he claimed he wouldn't whip against the measure, the New York Democrat is making phone calls to colleagues to explain his vote against the deal, which, as pointed out by several Democrats, is the basic definition of whipping.
"In that respect Schumer is potentially more dangerous than Cardin because I think he is going to spend the next five weeks seeing if there is any possibility that the deal can be killed," said a Democratic aide.
Still, not everyone is convinced that the defection of someone long suspected to oppose the deal will torpedo it, even if that person is set to become the next Senate Democratic leader. The current leader, Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.), has not yet said how he'll vote and has similar influence within the ranks to Schumer. And Cardin, as a perceived honest arbiter, still will provide or deny his imprimatur on the deal's substance.
"In the end it really wasn't surprising that Sen. Schumer declared his opposition to the deal," said Jim Manley, a former top spokesman for Reid. "The more interesting dynamic involves Sen. Cardin and what he is going to do as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee."