Sen. Ben Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Friday he will oppose the nuclear agreement with Iran — a position that won't stop the deal but is a setback for supporters who want to keep a Republican resolution of disapproval from reaching the White House.
The Maryland lawmaker cited concerns with the inspections regime called for in the agreement, the difficulty world leaders may have reimposing sanctions, and the fact that Tehran will not be required to disclose its past efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
"There's high risk in both directions, but I think the risk is higher in the long run by going forward with this agreement," Cardin told The Baltimore Sun. "There is no reason to believe that Iran won't continue its past activities."
Cardin, who is up for re-election in 2018, announced his position after it was already clear the White House had the votes needed to implement the deal — limiting the influence his decision will have.
But his announcement means Democrats have one less vote with which to block Republican objections to the deal in the Senate, making it more likely that Congress will approve a resolution of disapproval that Obama has promised to veto.
The outcome of such a confrontation would be the same — the deal would advance — but the divided nature of its passage would have important political implications.
Cardin's decision drew a sharp rebuke from liberal groups.
"Senator Cardin's deeply troubling decision to oppose the historic diplomatic agreement with Iran amounts to support for another war," said Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action.
His announcement came two days after Maryland's Barbara A. Mikulski became the 34th senator to back the plan, which would lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for more thorough inspections and a commitment from Tehran not to build a bomb. Mikulski's decision gave Obama the votes he needs to sustain a veto.
Republicans plan to introduce a resolution disapproving the agreement next week.
In that sense, Cardin's decision came after the deal was already a foregone conclusion — opening him up to criticism that he did not seek to convince others of his position. Cardin joins two Democratic senators — Chuck Schumer of New York and Bob Menendez of New Jersey — in opposing the deal. Schumer and Menendez announced their opposition last month, though neither used the time to lobby colleagues.
Still, the announcement frustrated deal supporters, who are working to lock down the 41 votes needed to block the resolution on the Senate floor, negating the need for a veto. That outcome would deprive opponents of being able to note that the administration is moving forward on a plan that is opposed by Congress.
Minutes before Cardin announced his position, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado told The Denver Post he would support the deal. Bennet's vote put the White House three votes shy of avoiding a veto. Five Democratic senators have not announced a position.
Cardin, who was under intense pressure from deal supporters and opponents, dismissed any suggestion that his timing was politically motivated. Instead, he said, he was deliberately working his way through the details. That's consistent with the way Cardin has approached tough issues in the past, when he has often deliberated until just days before the vote.
During an interview with The Sun's editorial board, Cardin was asked whether he could have had more influence in stopping the deal if he had come out against it sooner.
"I'm not trying to convince anybody," he said. "Everybody's trying to make their own judgment."
Cardin becomes the second lawmaker from Maryland to announce his opposition, joining Rep. Andy Harris, the state's only Republican in Congress.
Mikulski and Reps. Donna F. Edwards, Chris Van Hollen and Elijah E. Cummings support the deal. Edwards and Van Hollen are both seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat that will be left vacant by Mikulski's retirement in 2017.
Cardin, who became top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee this spring when Menendez was indicted on corruption charges, has been seen as a closer ally to the Obama administration. But he has also been a staunch supporter of Israel, whose leaders have deep misgivings about the deal.
Cardin said he had not directly told Obama, a former seatmate in the Senate, of his decision. Cardin said he told Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday that he was leaning against the deal.
The White House did not respond to Cardin's announcement, which came as Obama was meeting with Saudi Arabia's King Salman. A senior administration official who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly said the White House never expected Cardin to support the pact.
Republicans, united in opposition to the agreement, were quick to tout Cardin's announcement.
"The fact that the two Democrats who have spent the most time in understanding the details and impact of this deal do not support it speaks volumes," said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Cardin won praise for negotiating the bipartisan deal that gave Congress the authority to review the agreement — a complicated collaboration with Corker early in Cardin's new role.
Cardin has faced pressure on the deal in the weeks since then, culminating in a rally organized by the pro-Israel lobby the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this week at his synagogue in Pikesville. AIPAC and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have pushed Congress to reject the deal.
Cardin repeatedly praised the Obama administration's efforts, but he had a sharp assessment of Netanyahu, calling the prime minster's fiery speech before a joint session of Congress in March "inappropriate."
"I don't think he has been credible for many of us," he said.
Groups for and against the agreement have run television advertisements in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, bought billboards, and pressured their members to call Cardin's office. That effort became even more pronounced following Schumer's announcement.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Arthur C. Abramson is executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, which opposes the deal.
"Senator Cardin always votes his conscience on issues of importance," Abramson said. "It may take him longer than others to assess a particular agreement or bill, but in the end he does what he thinks is best."
Cardin offered several criticisms of the deal. He said he is concerned it will be politically difficult to reimpose sanctions once Iran is opened for international business. If Iran then cheats on its obligations, he said, military action could become more attractive.
Cardin said he is also worried about legitimizing Iran's nuclear program and shortening the time the country needs to develop a weapon after the 10- to 15-year term of the agreement.
"There are things in this agreement that should not have been in this agreement," he said. "I don't believe we got everything we needed and I think we could have done better."