Senate duo who crafted Iran deal are pair to watch on U.N. pact

By Nick Juliano | 04/16/2015 07:22 AM EDT

Can bipartisanship win again in the Senate?

Sens. Bob Corker and Ben Cardin pulled off what was once thought impossible this week when they brokered a compromise among lawmakers of both parties and the White House over the emerging accord meant to halt Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon. The Tennessee Republican with a moderate streak and low-key Maryland Democrat appeased critics and cut deals ahead of a unanimous vote this week in the Foreign Relations Committee that set in motion Iran legislation likely to become law.

When it comes time for the Obama administration to sell Congress and the American public on an international climate change agreement that officials hope to broker at the end of this year, it is certainly too soon to say whether the pair of Senate magicians would be able to pull another bipartisan rabbit from their hat. But their surprising success negotiating an Iran deal — and the speed with which it took shape — certainly has some senators taking notice.

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"It’s hard to extrapolate, but allowing for the role of personalities in the Senate, Bob seems like a Republican who tries to get to yes, and his yes is less compulsively doctrinaire than many of his colleagues, and Ben on our side is an extraordinarily experienced and capable legislator," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leading climate hawk, said in an interview yesterday. "So if you had to pick a pair, you’d be hard pressed to do much better."

To be sure, there are virtually no similarities in the details of the negotiations primarily among seven nations that led to the framework negotiations with Iran and the 192-country talks that organizers hope culminate with an international climate change agreement when the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change reconvenes in Paris this December.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of his party’s leading foreign policy voices who is also among the most moderate Republicans on climate change, suggested there were limits in any lessons for the U.N. talks to be drawn from this week’s deal on Iran.

"You can overlearn a lesson here," he said in a brief interview yesterday. "Here’s what we’ve learned — that the Iranian nuclear threat is pervasive in the minds of many Americans. … I don’t know if you can replicate this unless you can replicate the threat."

But the Foreign Relations Committee, which Corker chairs, will likely have a role formulating the Senate’s response to a potential Paris deal, and he brings to the table a far more moderate stance on climate change than many of his Republican colleagues most closely involved in the issue.

It remains to be seen what form an agreement from Paris will take and how Congress may try to intervene, but the ability Corker and Cardin demonstrated this week to manage various factions within their own ranks with priority placed on reaching a deal at the end of the day will again be put to the test.

Cardin took over the role of ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month following Sen. Bob Menendez’ (D-N.J.) indictment on corruption charges, and he was immediately made Senate Democrats lead negotiator over the Iran deal, according to a Politico report yesterday. The piece highlighted Cardin’s relationship with the White House and Corker’s ability to keep Republican critics of the administration from scuttling the bill, which provides Congress with at least 30 days to review the agreement with Iran and the option of passing a resolution to disapprove of it.

"Finding that space where you have meaningful oversight from the Congress but you still give the administration the space they need to be able to do foreign policy — [Tuesday] was a really good example of that," Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said in a brief interview yesterday. "Hopefully we can find that sort of sweet spot on climate, as well."

The Iran agreement also highlighted the extent to which compromise is possible when lawmakers are negotiating over the in-the-weeds details of an issue rather than simply trading superficial barbs, said Melissa Carey, deputy director for clean energy at the centrist think tank Third Way.

"There’s a whole other class of policymakers who are not cheerleaders but actually are interested in the details of these international agreements and actually have opinions about them, too," Carey said.

To be sure, the annual U.N. meeting likely will feature another visit from Republican members of Congress opposed to any action to address climate change who will seek to undercut such a deal. But there may be opportunities to bring less doctrinaire lawmakers on board by highlighting specific aspects of an eventual deal, Carey said.

For example, she said the administration in hindsight could have done a better job of seeking buy-in for the climate deal with China by touting its extensive support for carbon capture and sequestration, a priority for the coal industry. She partially blamed a lack of early outreach for a vote in January on an amendment criticizing the deal that won the support of all but two Republicans, as well as West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, a leading CCS champion.

"Frankly, I felt like it made the administration look bad, too, because it was preventable," Carey said. "I believe they had votes in support of that amendment from people who would not have supported it if they knew the first thing about it, which they did not."

While Corker was among the Republicans voting for that amendment, he has not been nearly as critical as some of his colleagues of the Obama administration’s efforts to broker an international climate deal. For example, when all the Senate chairmen provided overviews of the various committee agendas in annual "views and estimates" letters submitted to the Budget Committee, Corker did not mention climate change at all. And he has previously been among a small number of Republicans willing to acknowledge the potential value of addressing climate change.

Corker voted for an amendment acknowledging humanity’s role in changing the climate, although he is not among a smaller number of Republicans who joined Democrats in declaring that contribution a "significant" factor. While his 16 percent lifetime voting score from the League of Conservation Voters does not seem very high, it puts Corker above all but 10 current Senate Republicans. Last year, he added to that record, voting with LCV 1 in 5 times, according to the group.

For his part, Corker said yesterday that he had not thought about whether there were any implications for the climate talks in this week’s Iran agreement.