A proposal to allow the United States to refuse visas and freeze assets of human rights abusers more easily is receiving renewed attention in Congress now that Sen. Ben Cardin, a chief architect of the measure, has become the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The bill would give the president wide authority to impose sanctions on individuals involved in killings, torture and other human rights violations — expanding the administration's power to call attention to those abuses.
It is the kind of legislation that Cardin — a former leader of the human rights-oriented Helsinki Commission and a champion of global humanitarian causes — plans to pursue in his new role.
"Dealing with violations of internationally recognized human rights will be very high on my agenda," Cardin said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. His colleagues, he said, are "prepared for me to be involving human rights in most of the bills that we move through our committee."
Cardin, 71, was elevated to ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee this month after his predecessor, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, stepped down to fight federal corruption charges.
Broadly, the switch has been seen as favoring the White House, which sparred with Menendez over Cuba policy and other issues. But Cardin also has differences with President Barack Obama — over elements of the administration's nuclear negotiations with Iran and Cardin's efforts to punish human rights abusers.
The position puts Cardin in line to become the committee's chairman if Democrats regain the Senate majority in 2016. It makes him Obama's principal contact on foreign policy in the Senate, giving him a voice not only on human rights issues but U.S. efforts in Cuba, Ukraine and the Middle East.
It is the highest office Cardin has achieved in a career that began nearly a half-century ago, when he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates while still a law student at the University of Maryland. He rose to House speaker — the youngest in state history — before he left Annapolis in 1987 for a seat in Congress.
When Menendez stepped down, Cardin was thrust into high-stakes and complicated talks over a bill to allow Congress to review the nuclear agreement the Obama administration is negotiating with Iran.
The longtime lawmaker, elected to the Senate in 2006, crafted a compromise along with committee chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, to provide for that review. The bill won unanimous support in the committee, and Obama, who threatened to veto an earlier version, now says he would likely sign the measure if it reaches his desk.
When the legislation, known as the Corker-Cardin bill, moves to the Senate floor this week, Cardin will lead the debate for Democrats, working to block amendments that could undermine its approval.
Cardin generally hews more closely to the administration's foreign policy than Menendez. Asked about his engagement with the White House over the Iran bill, Cardin said he has spoken with Obama almost daily.
But he has also expressed substantial differences with the administration. He said he disagreed with the decision to allow Iran to continue enriching uranium — albeit in a limited way — during early talks. Iran insists that it is enriching uranium for energy, not to produce nuclear weapons.
Cardin praised the framework agreement announced in early April, and he put the odds that negotiators would reach a final agreement by the June 30 deadline at better than 50-50. But he also said he would not be surprised if the talks ultimately fell through.
"It seems to me that there are still a lot of avenues that are going to be difficult for us to deal with," he said. "Yes, I disagreed with a lot of the strategies, but I think we can get to the finish line in an acceptable way."
Cardin has been skeptical of the president's request for a new authorization to use military force against the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq, an issue the administration wants the committee to address. Democrats are concerned about ambiguous language in the proposal that they fear could lead to an extended conflict, while Republicans, in this case, are opposed to limiting the president's power.
Cardin did not rule out passage, but he described it as a long shot.
"It's going to be very, very difficult," he said. "I don't see a way forward at this particular moment."
Human rights has long been a central issue for Cardin. A former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe — the so-called Helsinki Commission. He successfully pressed Congress in 2012 to approve a law that allows the administration to impose sanctions against human rights abusers from Russia, despite howls from Moscow and opposition from the White House.
The Kremlin responded to the law by banning the adoption of Russian babies by U.S. parents.
Cardin is better positioned in his new role to expand that law to all countries. The Magnitsky Act — named for lawyer and auditor Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian jail in 2009 — is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and has support from both ends of the political spectrum, from conservative Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to liberal Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
Cardin "can definitely try to move it and try to put in on the agenda," said Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "There's a precedent for passing these types of bills."
While the effort is bipartisan, support is far from unanimous. Notably, no one from the Obama administration is set to testify at a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday focused on that chamber's version of the bill.
Sanctions imposed by Congress — even those that are only suggested — can complicate an administration's pursuit of foreign policy goals in countries with which the United States already has challenging relationships.
A State Department official declined to comment on Cardin's proposal, or even the issue generally.
Corker, who Cardin said has reservations about the bill, did not respond to a request for comment. Rep. Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the legislation "warrants a thorough look."
There have also been questions about the implementation of the Russian provisions already in effect. Cardin wrote the White House in 2013 to suggest that some 60 Russians be added to the sanctions blacklist. The Treasury Department responded with 18 people, many tied specifically to the Magnitsky case.
In all, 34 people have been added to the public list. It is not clear whether the federal government has created a separate, classified list of names.
Human rights groups view the list as a powerful tool not only to shame individuals but also to restrict their travel and prevent them from moving assets overseas. But creating and expanding the lists is bound to infuriate the target country, as it has with Russia, and could complicate negotiations on other, shared interests.
Daniel Calingaert, executive vice president of Freedom House, a Washington-based organization that lobbies for human rights around the world, said the administration's effort on the Russian Magnitsky provisions "could be better."
"They've done some, but I would describe it as unenthusiastic," he said. "That's probably being charitable."