WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Cardin has emerged as a central figure in the debate over the pending nuclear deal with Iran, joining a small group of lawmakers who could decide the future of one of President Barack Obama's most significant foreign policies.
After four months as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cardin's influence on the issue has grown so swiftly that both opponents and supporters of the agreement predict that his word could alter the course and timeline of Congress' review of the deal.
Cardin is "in an incredibly unenviable position," said Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which has not yet taken a position on the agreement. "There's not a moment of peace that poor guy is getting."
Like many undecided Democrats, Cardin is under intense pressure from the Obama administration to support an agreement that the administration says would limit Iran's nuclear ambitions for at least a decade in exchange for lifting sanctions that have hobbled the country's economy.
But because of his role on the Foreign Relations Committee and his long-standing support of Israel, Cardin is also being lobbied by opponents who say the agreement — announced July 14 — would destabilize the Middle East.
Jewish Democrats such as Cardin and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York are being pressed especially hard by those on both sides of the issue, given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to the deal.
Cardin confirmed that he has met with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby that opposes the deal, as well as J Street, a more liberal group that supports it. AIPAC has created a nonprofit organization that is running ads about the issue on television stations in Baltimore and across the nation, according to Federal Communications Commission records.
Cardin has spoken with Obama and has met repeatedly with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist and an architect of the deal. He also has spoken with Netanyahu, who last month called the agreement a "historic mistake."
"There's a lot of interest, lots of letters," Cardin said in an interview on Capitol Hill last week after attending a three-hour hearing on Iran — the latest of several held in recent weeks. "The majority of my day is spent on this."
Cardin made news during a hearing in late July by saying U.S. negotiators had gotten "an awful lot" from Iran in the agreement, an indication of how closely his words are being watched on the issue for any hint about where he stands. Cardin has stressed that he remains undecided on the deal, and those who follow the former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates closely know he guards his positions until late in the process.
There is every reason to believe he will do so again in this case. Cardin said last week that he doesn't expect to make a decision until the fall. Congress has until Sept. 17 to endorse or reject the pact.
"At the end of the day, I'm going to make my decision based on what's in the best interest of this country," Cardin said.
Cardin, 71, became the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee in April, after his predecessor, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, was indicted on federal corruption charges. It is the highest position Cardin has achieved in a career that began nearly a half-century ago, when he was elected to the House of Delegates while still a law student at the University of Maryland.
On the Foreign Relations Committee, he was immediately thrust into a complicated fight over legislation to give Congress the ability to review the Iran agreement, which at the time was still being negotiated by the United States and five other world powers. That bill passed with wide bipartisan support despite early opposition from the White House, and it created the process now underway.
Congress has two months to approve the agreement, reject it or do nothing. Because Republican leadership has largely opposed the deal, many observers predict that lawmakers will approve a resolution rejecting it, forcing Obama to veto the resolution. Under that scenario, opponents would need to gather a two-thirds majority to override the veto — an effort that would require dozens of Democrats to vote against the president.
Cardin's decision "will have a significant impact on the level of support in the Senate for the agreement," said Dylan J. Williams, the top lobbyist for J Street. "It might even make the difference between whether the effort to kill the agreement is defeated in an override vote or earlier, in an initial vote."
The Iran nuclear deal has also emerged as an issue in the competition to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
One candidate in that race, Rep. Donna F. Edwards, a Prince George's County Democrat, was an early supporter of the accord, and she repeatedly pressed her opponent, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, to state his position. Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, has more support from Jewish groups such as AIPAC that oppose the agreement — and so he was in a tougher spot politically.
On Thursday, Van Hollen said he would support the Iran deal because it "advances the national security interests of the United States and all of our allies, including our partner Israel."
"The benefit of any agreement must be measured against the real-world consequences of no agreement," he said in a statement. "I firmly believe that, should Congress block this agreement, we would undermine the goal of Iran never obtaining a nuclear weapon, inadvertently weaken and isolate America, and strengthen Iran."
Many Democrats are still studying the deal, including Mikulski and most of the rest of Maryland's congressional delegation. On the other hand, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is running for president, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have already stated their support for it.
A CNN/ORC poll released last week found that 52 percent of Americans want Congress to reject the agreement; 44 percent of respondents say it should be approved.
Lawmakers have just begun their review, but several groups nationally and in Maryland are lining up on the issue.
The influential Baltimore Jewish Council issued a lengthy statement Monday opposing the agreement. The group expressed concern about Iran's capability to obtain a nuclear weapon after the deal's 10-year horizon, and questioned the ability of the United States to reinstate sanctions if Tehran fails to honor its commitment.
"It's very tough to make a decision on this issue and just ignore Iran's record of lying and terrorism," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the group. "On that basis alone, I would seriously question the deal."
Abramson said he last spoke with Cardin on the issue about a month ago.
"Because of the significant role he plays, I'm sure he's getting pressured nationally," Abramson said. "What he desires will shape not only the minds and perhaps the voting stance of ... a significant number of Democrats, but also clearly some Republicans."