WASHINGTON -- With the recently indicted Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) stepping down as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is set to take his place. The leadership turnover comes just as international negotiators prepare to announce a framework for a nuclear deal with Iran, and could have major implications as a restive Congress seeks to make sure it has a say in determining a final agreement.
The Department of Justice on Wednesday hit Menendez with a 14-count indictment, including charges of conspiracy and bribery. Although he maintains his innocence, Menendez volunteered on Wednesday evening to step down as ranking member until the conclusion of the investigation, which was made official on Thursday afternoon. While Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is the next-most senior member of the committee, she has opted to maintain her position as head of the Committee on Environment and Public Works instead.
This paves the way for Cardin to become the highest-ranking Democrat on the foreign relations panel and thrusts the Maryland senator’s stance on Iran into public scrutiny.
Negotiators in Lausanne, Switzerland are expected to announce the broad details for a final nuclear agreement on Thursday, after a two-day extension of the March 31 deadline to reach a political framework. If the announcement fails to convince members of the U.S. Congress that the negotiations, set to conclude June 30, are working, lawmakers are likely to push forward with controversial legislation that seeks to give Congress a greater role in shaping an agreement. As the new ranking member of the foreign relations panel, Cardin will be a pivotal player in the ongoing battle between Congress and the White House over the Iran nuclear issue.
Compared to Menendez, Cardin is relatively optimistic about the possibility that the negotiations will result in a deal that prevents Iran from getting nuclear weapons. “I really take issue with those who are saying we can’t have an effective agreement,” Cardin told Bloomberg on Monday.
Cardin has yet to commit to either of the Iran bills currently pending in the Senate. Menendez, one of the chamber’s most vocal Iran hawks and never one to fear butting heads with a president of his own party, is an original co-sponsor of both pieces of legislation. One, introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), would halt implementation of any nuclear deal for two months to give Congress the chance to vote on the text of the agreement. The other, which Menendez introduced along with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), would levy additional sanctions against Iran if a final deal is not reached by June 30.
President Barack Obama has threatened to veto both measures, instead urging Congress to hold off on passing legislation until after the end of June so as to avoid derailing the talks.
Cardin has maintained that a deal that imposes unfettered inspections into Iran’s nuclear facilities and provides for “snap-back sanctions” in the event of a violation of the agreement will ensure Iran cannot produce nuclear weapons without detection.
But the announcement from Lausanne on Thursday is not guaranteed to offer either of those assurances; Negotiators have indicated that agreement on several key issues will be deferred until the final June 30 deadline.
This means that the new ranking member is likely to eventually throw his weight behind one or both of the bills backed by Menendez. Cardin represents a handful of Democrats who are skeptical of Obama’s approach to Iran, but are nonetheless hesitant to blatantly defy the president’s request to hold off on legislation.
As a compromise, Cardin and nine other Democrats signed letters earlier this year committing to holding off on a vote on both the Corker bill and the Kirk-Menendez bill until after the deadline for a political framework.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to mark up Corker’s bill on April 14. If Cardin adds his support to the bill, which is tentatively three votes away from the 67 needed to override a veto, it is likely to sway other hesitant Democrats into joining him.
Similarly, if the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill comes to a vote, Cardin’s support would likely influence other fence-sitting Democrats. Although there is currently no vote scheduled, the bill is expected to gain momentum after the conclusion of this round of talks.
Cardin, who in 2013 co-sponsored a separate piece of sanctions legislation introduced by Kirk and Menendez, has implied that he would support the current Kirk-Menendez bill if the political framework announcement doesn’t meet expectations. “The best case is to have an effective arrangement with Iran where they give up their nuclear weapon ambition,” he told MSNBC’s Jose Diaz-Balart on Monday. “If they don’t, sanctions will be tightened, we will continue to isolate Iran as much as we can.”