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Cardin takes top Foreign Relations spot for Democrats

Sen. Ben Cardin became the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, providing the Obama administration with a potentially powerful ally at a critical time for U.S. foreign policy.

The Maryland lawmaker will replace Sen. Robert Menendez, a vocal critic of the White House on its handling of Iran and Cuba. The New Jersey Democrat stepped aside from his position on the panel Wednesday after a grand jury charged him with corruption.

Cardin's ascension instantly gave him a voice in international diplomacy and came minutes before President Barack Obama announced the framework of a nuclear agreement with Iran — a deal Cardin could have a role in selling to skeptical lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

His first test will come in a matter of weeks when the committee takes up legislation giving Congress the power to review the final agreement, should one emerge by the end of June.

While the proposal has bipartisan support, Cardin will have to work across the aisle in the Republican-controlled Senate while lining up Democrats who are wary of any deal with Iran. Meanwhile, the idea has met with resistance from the White House.

"Congressional review is appropriate," Cardin said in an interview Thursday. "But I want to work out some of the concerns the White House has — they have some legitimate issues."

Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, reiterated Thursday that the committee will take up the measure on April 14.

Cardin was elected to the Senate in 2006. If Democrats reclaim control of the chamber in 2016 — as some believe they could — he would take the chairmanship of the influential panel.

That outcome would elevate his profile considerably, and it would mean Maryland's congressional delegation would continue to hold a Senate committee chair even after Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's retirement in 2017. Mikulski is the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Regardless of the election outcome, Cardin will play a key role in negotiating foreign policy, such as Obama's request for congressional authorization for military operations against Islamic State fighters.

Cardin is already doing the job of a ranking Democrat, but he won't formally take the position until approved by the rest of the caucus later this month.

Congressional observers and foreign policy experts predicted that he is likely to take a different approach with the White House than his predecessor.

Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, was an outspoken critic of Obama's decision in December re-establish diplomatic relations with Havana, arguing that the move "vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government."

As part of the agreement, Cuba released Alan Gross, the aid worker from Maryland who was held for more than five years for trying to connect the island's Jewish community to the Internet.

Cardin, by contrast, argued at the time that "a healthy and prosperous Cuba is good for the United States." He was one of 19 senators this year to co-sponsor legislation to lift the travel ban on American tourists visiting Cuba.

A staunch supporter of Israel, Cardin also has taken a more nuanced stance than Menendez on U.S. talks with Iran — one that is more closely aligned with the Obama administration. He has supported tougher sanctions on the country, but also agreed not to press the matter to allow negotiations with Tehran to develop.

Cardin said he is reviewing the framework agreement with Iran that Obama announced Thursday. The deal, which would limit Iran's nuclear capability in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, sets the stage for — but does not guarantee — a final deal by the end of June.

"This framework and the ultimate agreement cannot be based on trust; there is no trust when it comes to Iran," Cardin said in a statement. "The final agreement must be verifiable and transparent, making it clear that any violations would result in an immediate restoration of the strongest possible sanctions."

Cardin supports legislation allowing Congress to review a final agreement with Iran, but has concerns with some parts of the bill.

It could prove difficult to craft legislation that satisfies lawmakers, appeases the White House and doesn't jeopardize negotiations with Iran.

Les Gelb, president emeritus of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, said Cardin's promotion on the committee could help unify Democrats on matters of global policy.

"Menendez was much more of a critic of Obama than a supporter, and I think Cardin will essentially be supportive," Gelb said. "That's very important because it will provide more coherence on the Democratic side."

But Cardin also has broken with the White House on other issues.

Earlier this week, he signed a letter to the president, along with another Democrat and two Republicans, criticizing the administration for suggesting that the U.S. could bypass direct negotiations with Israel in favor of imposing Middle East peace terms through the United Nations Security Council.

That idea was floated amid escalating rhetoric between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has opposed the negotiations with Iran.

Cardin also pushed human rights legislation aimed at Russia through Congress in 2012, despite objections from the administration. The measure requires the State Department to maintain a list of human rights abusers in Russia and freeze their assets.

A former co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe — the so-called Helsinki Commission — Cardin has become a leading national voice on human rights around the world.

Menendez described his departure from the committee post as a temporary, suggesting he would seek to return to the assignment if cleared of any wrongdoing.

Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said in a statement that he spoke with Cardin on Thursday and looks "forward to continuing to work with him and all of our colleagues on the committee."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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