For nearly a half-century, Sen. Ben Cardin has been a state legislator, speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, a member of the U.S. House and for the last eight years, a senator. Now, he's an ambassador of sorts, representing diverse constituencies in a tense and complex standoff over the threat a nuclear Iran could pose to Israel and the United States.
"I am trying to bridge the differences here," Cardin said in a telephone interview Wednesday from a Florida vacation a little while after receiving a call from President Obama.
There are many difficult disputes between powerful groups and across continents over how to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. On one track, Mr. Obama is in the final stages of negotiations with Iran over a deal that would curb Tehran's nuclear program and ease sanctions. He has issued a veto threat and personally pushed against the second track - a bill in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that would give Congress a say over the provisions of any such deal.
When Republican Chairman Bob Corker gavels open a crucial hearing Tuesday on that bill, Cardin, for the first time, will be seated next to him as the ranking Democrat on the panel. It'll be a notable moment for the 71-year-old senator, grandson of immigrants and son of a prominent Baltimore city judge.
"It's in my DNA; it's part of my family background," Cardin said of his now-elevated role in policymaking.
The post, opened after New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez stepped aside under an indictment, makes Cardin the lead Senate Democrat negotiating the volatile issue. Issues surrounding Iran and Israel put Cardin between his president, who wants a deal, and American Jews counting on Cardin to stand with Israel, whose leaders want no such deal with Iran.
"It is a test. And everybody's going to be looking and he knows that and he understands that," said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, a longtime family friend of Cardin, who is Jewish. "He's going to have to thread the needle between different constituencies, one of them being his constituents, one being his colleagues, the other being the president of the United States."
Cardin will be leading Democratic senators intent on changing the bill sponsored by Corker and Menendez. On Wednesday, Obama lobbied Corker and Cardin by phone as part of a campaign to convince Congress not to take any action that could upend delicate negotiations as the administration pushes to seal a final international deal.
"We look forward to continuing to work with Senator Cardin, a thoughtful and principled lawmaker and longstanding foreign policy expert," in his role as ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said White House spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman. "The president raised with Senator Cardin the importance of ensuring that our negotiating team has the space they need to achieve and implement a good deal that verifiably prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
Cardin, who has not signed on to the Corker-Menendez proposal, said after the 15-minute call that he views himself as a link - "not that I feel I'll be able to get the president as a cheerleader to the bill but try to deal with some legitimate concerns."
Cardin hopes an amended bill can carry out two purposes: Provide Congress with an orderly way to review any final agreement reached with Iran, and mandate periodic reports on compliance so Congress can take action if Iran violates a final deal - if it can be reached.
There was more upheaval after the consultations. Standing by the president, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi expressed her opposition to the Corker-Menendez bill, saying it undermines the international negotiators' ability to reach a final agreement with Iran and "represents an unnecessary hurdle to achieving a strong, final agreement."
Whether the measure could garner a two-thirds majority in the full Senate to override a presidential veto is not known, but it's clear there is bipartisan support for finding a way for Congress to weigh in on any deal, regardless of whether the White House wants it to or not.
"I would hope that if we get it done the way I'm hoping to get it done that the concerns that the president has raised" will be addressed, said Cardin, who is proposing more than a handful of amendments. "Now, the president may feel compelled because of separation of powers to veto it. I understand that."
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama's conversation with Corker was a chance for the president to speak directly to the chairman to "underscore his view about the opportunity that now exists."
"The mode that we're in right now is helping members of Congress understand exactly what's included in the commitments that Iran has made thus far," Earnest said. "And our principle concern is to make sure that the U.S. officials who are responsible for negotiating the details of this agreement have the time and space that they need to complete this agreement by the end of June."
On Capitol Hill, the focus is on the committee, which is scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday.
As it's written, the Corker-Menendez bill would require Obama to submit any final agreement reached with Iran to Congress within five days. It would require Obama to send a report that explains the extent to which the secretary of state will be able to verify that Iran is complying with the deal. The bill also would require the White House to certify that the agreement does not jeopardize U.S. national security, including preventing Iran from pursuing nuclear-related military activities.
Several Democratic amendments were expected to be filed by week's end.