Key Democratic Sen. Cardin opposes Iran deal, hurting White House chances to block challenge



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Secretary of State John Kerry took the Obama administration's case for the Iran nuclear deal to Philadelphia, where he made the case that the agreement is the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. (Sept. 2)


Speaking to Jewish leaders in Florida, Vice President Joe Biden spelled out his support for a nuclear deal with Iran, telling the group, "This is a good deal." Biden is expected to decide within a month whether he'll run for president. (Sept. 3)

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WASHINGTON — White House hopes for stopping a congressional challenge to the Iran nuclear deal and sparing President Barack Obama from using a veto suffered a blow Friday when a key Senate Democrat announced his opposition.

The setback came in the announcement from Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, that he opposes the deal. But that doesn't affect the ultimate outcome for the international accord to limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

Earlier this week the White House clinched the necessary Senate votes to ensure that even if Obama ends up having to veto a resolution of disapproval set for a vote next week, his veto would be upheld.

But with those votes in hand and more piling up, the White House and congressional supporters of the deal had begun aiming for a more ambitious goal: enough support to bottle up the disapproval resolution in the Senate with a filibuster, preventing it from even coming to a final vote.

With Cardin's announcement, that goal remains in reach, but will be tougher to attain.

"This is a close call, but after a lengthy review, I will vote to disapprove the deal," Cardin wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post. The agreement "legitimizes Iran's nuclear program. After 10 to 15 years, it would leave Iran with the option to produce enough enriched fuel for a nuclear weapon in a short time," he wrote.

Cardin made his announcement as Obama met at the White House with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, in part to offer assurances that the deal signed by the U.S., Iran, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia comes with the necessary resources to help check Iran's regional ambitions. Saudi officials have cautiously supported the deal but are worried about enforcement and whether an Iranian government flush with cash will wreak havoc throughout the Middle East.

Before the meeting began, Obama told reporters in the Oval Office that the leaders would "discuss the importance of effectively implementing the deal to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, while counteracting its destabilizing activities in the region."

With all but a handful of Senate Democrats already stating their positions — and only two opposed to the deal — Cardin was the critical outstanding vote. In addition to serving as top Foreign Relations Committee Democrat, he was an author of legislation providing for congressional review of the Iran deal. As a leading Jewish Democrat, he was also under strong pressure from segments of the Jewish community to turn down the deal, which is ardently opposed by Israel.

Cardin's announcement came moments after Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet announced that he would back the deal. Bennet, who is up for re-election next year in a battleground state, said the agreement is flawed but represents an important step toward the objectives of preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon, ensuring Israel's security and avoiding war in the Middle East.

Bennet's support put backers of the agreement just three votes shy of the 41 they would need to filibuster the resolution and block it from passing. But Cardin's opposition could be enough to prevent three more senators from coming on board. Only five have yet to announce where they stand: Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Gary Peters of Michigan.

Several of those are seen as possible "no" votes. The other two senators opposing the deal are Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York.

Cardin's opposition lent ammunition to Republican opponents of the deal, who say it makes too many concessions to Iran.

"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 GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennesse, chairman of the Foreign Relations panel and Cardin's partner in authoring the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

Cardin also announced he would introduce new legislation to address Iran, including making it U.S. policy that Iran will never be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon, and clarifying that nothing in the deal limits Congress' ability to pass new sanctions legislation. However Obama would surely veto any bill that would effectively force the U.S. and other world powers to reopen negotiations with Iran.

Cardin's much-anticipated announcement, coming on the last Friday of Congress' five-week August recess, put an exclamation point on a summer that has otherwise seen Democrats flock to support the Iran deal, defying predictions that well-funded opponents could use the recess to make it politically toxic.

In part, united Republican opposition to the deal has allowed the White House to rally Democrats to support it. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will headline a rally against the deal next week along with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, also a White House hopeful.

Opponents, unsuccessful in their initial efforts to muster the votes to override an Obama veto, have now settled for a more modest goal: Urging Senate Democrats to oppose a filibuster and allow a final vote on the disapproval resolution — even if they plan to oppose the resolution itself.

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Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

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