In the end, Maryland’s newly ascendant junior senator got what he wanted.
The unanimous passing Tuesday of the Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015, referred to colloquially as the Corker bill after its chief sponsor, by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee marked an important first test of Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin’s ability to negotiate the conflicting minefields of White House pressure and Republican resistance as the committee’s ranking member.
Cardin is now among the most visible Jewish legislators on Capitol Hill, thrust into the spotlight upon replacing Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is under federal indictment for suspected influence peddling.
Working in tandem with the committee’s chairman, Sen. Robert Corker (R-Tenn.), and convincing less-than-pleased senators to withhold certain amendments — 52 were filed, but only one was brought to vote during the markup session — showcased Cardin’s ability to compromise on legislation that, if approved by both chambers of Congress, would submit any final nuclear deal reached between the Obama administration and Iran to congressional review.
Cardin and Corker’s compromise brought together Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a newly announced GOP presidential contender, and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on language pertaining to Israel’s safety, security and right to exist.
Boxer, who initially opposed the bill as undermining the administration’s ability to negotiate, said, “I believe this bill has been changed from a point where I did not support it to the point where I can.”
At a briefing Tuesday morning, White House spokesman Josh Earnest indicated that the president is willing to sign the proposed compromise. Corker claimed victory, telling The Hill that the administration backed down from its promised veto after realizing the “number of senators [who] were going to support this legislation.”
As part of the compromise, an initial 60-day review period of any Iran deal — which was proposed by Corker and Menendez — was reduced. Assuming that a deal is delivered on time, defined as July 10, Congress will get 30 days to review the arrangement and vote on lifting economic sanctions, a key demand of Iranian negotiators. Twelve days will automatically be added if Congress sends a sanctions-related bill to the president. If the legislation is vetoed, 10 further days will be added to the review period.
In the event that the deadline to submit a final agreement to Congress is not met, the review period reverts to 60 days. During the review period, the president cannot waive sanctions put in place by Congress.
The legislation also mandates a presidential certification every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the terms of a final agreement. Should Iran be found to have violated the terms of an agreement, Congress would snap sanctions back into place.
“We’ve eliminated from the original draft certain presidential certifications that were not [directly related to Iran’s nuclear ambitions],” said Cardin.
Reiterating what he had told the Baltimore Jewish Times a day prior to the vote, Cardin said in his opening remarks that congressional sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, and only an act of Congress could permanently remove sanctions imposed on Iran.
Corker clarified that while the bill dealt with nuclear activity, reports on Iran’s other offensive acts, including regional terrorism, would still be required.
“The sanctions relative to ballistic missile testing — they stay in place. The sanctions relative to terrorism — they stay in place. The sanctions relative to human rights — they stay in place,” said Corker.
Menendez, who along with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) was thanked repeatedly for his efforts in crafting the original legislation, said his “goal is one goal — and that is to make certain Iran does not have the infrastructure to develop a nuclear weapon.”
“The best way to achieve that goal is with bipartisan support that strengthens the United States’ hand in moving from a political framework to a comprehensive agreement and sets out expectations for Iranian compliance,” he added.
As part of the administration’s campaign to sell the Iran deal, two separate meetings with Jewish leadership were held Monday afternoon. The meetings came amid a drop in the president’s approval rating among Jewish voters and stepped up pressure from at least one Maryland synagogue, which urged its members to lobby Cardin in favor of the Corker bill.
In the first meeting, 15 top officials from Jewish organizations, including Robert Cohen and Lee Rosenberg of AIPAC, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, three J Street board members and representatives from the major streams of Judaism, heard directly from the president and National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
The outreach stood in contrast to an earlier briefing on an April 2 framework agreement reached with Iran in which Jewish leaders were briefed by Colin Kahl, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser.
Rather than give leaders the hard sell, the president offered a softer pitch.
“He tried to explain he understands Jewish trauma, history, the Jewish feeling of being alone in a bad neighborhood,” one participant told JTA on condition of anonymity, as both meetings were off the record.
A number of the more conservative organizational leaders attending the first meeting, among them Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Allen Fagin, the Orthodox Union’s CEO, challenged Obama on the particulars of the Iran deal.
The second meeting with fundraisers — attended by Haim Saban, the Israeli-American entertainment mogul who has been critical of Obama’s Middle East policies, and Democratic donors associated with AIPAC, including past presidents Amy Friedkin and Howard Friedman, and with J Street, including Alexandra Stanton, Lou Susman and Victor Kovner — turned into a strategy session on how Obama could better his message to American Jews, Israelis and the American public.
The meeting was joined by Biden and presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett.
JTA contributed to this report.
Melissa Apter is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.