Josh Kurtz: Middle East Politics – and Sen. Cardin

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Six weeks after President Obama announced a nuclear deal with Iran, Maryland’s two U.S. senators, Barbara Mikulski (D) and Ben Cardin (D), have still not said whether they support it.

Cardin is frequently overshadowed by the feistier, more senior Mikulski, but in this instance his decision is worth watching more than Mikulski’s.

Mikulski, after all, is a lame duck, and her vote on the president’s deal next month will presumably be devoid of political considerations. Significantly, the three people likeliest to succeed her in the Senate, Reps. Donna Edwards (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D), who have been campaigning for the seat for five months, and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D), who is inching closer to a bid, all support the pact.

Cardin recently became the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee following a scandal surrounding the previous top Democrat, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez – meaning he could be in a position to sway his Democratic colleagues. And Cardin could seek a third term in 2018, when he will be 74 years old – meaning he will have to tread more carefully than Mikulski. And Cardin is, of course, the lone Jewish member of the state’s congressional delegation – meaning he faces unique pressures when it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Associates of Cardin’s say they expect the senator to signal his intentions sometime soon after Labor Day, when Congress returns from its lengthy summer recess and begins the process of formally considering whether to approve Obama’s deal. A vote is likely to take place in mid-September.

The likelihood is that Republicans in both chambers of Congress have the votes to pass a bill to block the agreement. But assuming Obama vetoes it, Democrats probably have the votes to uphold it.

Sue Walitsky, Cardin’s national communications director, said in an emailed statement that Cardin “considers this a tough decision and very consequential.

“He continues to study the details of this deal, reach out to experts for answers to his many questions, and engage Marylanders to get their thoughts,” Walitsky continued. “There is great intensity on all sides of this issue but the feedback has been decidedly mixed. He believes that each Senator and member of Congress has to make his or her own decision based on what is right for our country – not party, not president, but the national security of the United States of America. He does not plan to rush his decision based on what others may decide.”

So far, three prominent congressional Democrats have come out against the Iran agreement. The most significant was New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D), who is in line to be the next Senate Democratic leader come 2017.

Any controversial U.S. policy affecting the Middle East – and particularly, when it affects the potential security of Israel – is thorny for a New York politician, especially for a Jewish elected official like Schumer. The American Jewish community hardly speaks with one voice on Israel – far from it – but some of the most strident pro-Israel voices tend to dominate the conversation, and hold major political sway, especially in the Empire State.

Cardin faces some of the same pressures.

“I will vote to disapprove the agreement, not because I believe war is a viable or desirable option, nor to challenge the path of diplomacy,” Schumer said, following what he called a period of soul-searching. “It is because I believe Iran will not change.”

Certain liberal organizations were livid – and some demanded that Democrats oppose Schumer’s bid to run the Senate caucus after Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) retires. The group MoveOn.org urged its members to withhold contributions to Schumer’s campaign (he is up for re-election next year, though no prominent opponents have emerged so far), and to other political committees associated with Senate Democrats.

“While Sen. Schumer’s decision is not unexpected, it is outrageous and unacceptable that any Democrat — especially one who wants to lead his caucus — would side with Republican partisans, war hawks and neoconservative ideologues who are trying to scrap this agreement and put us on the path to war,” said Ilya Sherman, MoveOn.org’s political director.

In the wake of Schumer’s announcement, Menendez and New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee – essentially, Cardin’s House counterpart – also announced their opposition to the deal.

What is the practical effect of these Democrats’ defections? It has enabled opponents of Obama’s Iran deal, which include most congressional Republicans and AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group that is extremely tight with the Netanyahu government in Israel and now opposes Obama policies almost as reflexively as the Republicans do, to claim that theirs is a bipartisan movement.

But is it really bipartisan? Schumer, who is one of the smartest and savviest politicians in America, has said he does not plan to lobby his Democratic colleagues to oppose the deal. Engel – who is best known in Washington for camping out in an aisle seat hours before the annual State of the Union address, so he can be photographed shaking hands with the president – won’t be an advocate for killing the deal, either. And Menendez, who was indicted in April for allegedly accepting bribes, doesn’t have much credibility anymore.

Meanwhile, more congressional Democrats come out in favor of the deal -- Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow on Monday, and Reid on Sunday.

As Cardin watches these developments, he’s no doubt noting that closer to home, leaders of the Baltimore Jewish Council have expressed reservations about the deal.

But something interesting is happening in the Senate race to succeed Mikulski. J Street, a pro-Israel group that advocates for a two-state solution with the Palestinians and was born seven years ago to serve as a more moderate counterweight to AIPAC, endorsed Edwards early in the Senate race.

J Street leaders, whose views on Middle Eastern affairs dovetail with Obama’s, have inoculated Edwards from attacks in the past that she isn’t sufficiently pro-Israel. Two of Edwards’ Democratic challengers, Herman Taylor in 2010, and Glenn Ivey in 2012, both thought they could ride Jewish donors to victory; Taylor was clobbered and Ivey abandoned his bid before the primary.

But as soon as Van Hollen announced that he was supporting the Iran deal, J Street endorsed him in the Senate race, too. The group conducted a poll in late July showing that 60 percent of American Jews support the Iran deal – something Cardin is also no doubt taking note of.

MoveOn.org is continuing its push to win support for Obama’s Iran deal, with a national day of action set for Wednesday. Activists are expected to rally outside Cardin’s Baltimore office.

Knowing Cardin’s loyalty to Obama, it is hard to see him doing anything to embarrass the president – even if he ultimately comes out against the nuclear agreement. No doubt, he would adopt Schumer’s stance and promise not to lobby his colleagues to defeat it.

But this may be the last, best chance for meaningful peace with an otherwise reckless and unpredictable foe – and who knows who will wind up in the White House after Obama? Wouldn’t it be better if Cardin used his newfound stature on the Foreign Relations Committee to advocate for – and improve, if at all possible – this imperfect but important deal?

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.