Democrats blast Portman for signing Iran letter, but he's unapologetic

Mar 15, 2015

It’s hard to say for certain at this point, but Ohio’s junior U.S. Senator, Rob Portman, may have given the Democrats who want to take his job away from him in next year’s election a campaign issue.

Portman was one of 47 Republican senators who signed a letter last week to the leadership of Iran warning them that if they reach an agreement with the Obama administration on nuclear weapons, the next president and Congress could undo it.

Seven GOP senators did not sign the letter.

Portman defends his signing of the letter, saying he hopes the Obama administration can make a deal that will keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranian regime.

“This letter should be used by the administration as leverage,’’ Portman said Friday in a conference call with Ohio reporters.

But the Obama White House was furious, calling it a reckless act, interfering with the president’s constitutional powers to conduct foreign policy and make treaties – which then, and only then, go to the Senate for approval.

Some Democrats went so far as to call the letter an act of treason, citing the Logan Act, a 1799 law that prohibits unauthorized U.S. citizens from interfering in relations between the U.S. and foreign governments.

Well, the two Democrats who are vying for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Ohio, former governor Ted Strickland and Cincinnati council member P.G. Sittenfeld, haven’t gone so far as to accuse Portman and his fellow Republicans of treason. Neither has the senior senator from Ohio, Democrat Sherrod Brown.

But they have made it known they believe Portman made a serious mistake in judgment in signing the letter; and there are reports that the Democratic Party machinery in Washington is looking at the Iran letter as a potential campaign issue as the Democrats try to recapture control of the Senate in 2016.

Strickland, a former congressman, was the first to weigh in.

“Rob Portman should be embarrassed for irresponsibly attempting to sabotage our country’s negotiations with Iran,’’ Strickland said in a written statement Wednesday.

“Portman’s restless political stunt makes America less safe,’’ Strickland said. “He has chosen to play politics with our national security and owes Ohioans an apology.”

WVXU asked Sittenfeld’s communications director Ben Finkenbinder for a statement from Sittenfeld on the letter, and he came up with this:

“Iran’s nuclear program is a serious threat which must be handled firmly, but for the GOP and Rob Portman to undermine our own government is a reckless, irresponsible way to do it,’’ Sittenfeld said in the written statement. “This latest example of putting politics ahead of policy shows how broken Rob Portman’s Washington is and highlights the need for new leadership to move forward on foreign policy as well as the economic challenges here at home.”

M.L. Schultze of public radio station WKSU recorded Brown saying that while he would never accuse the Republicans of treason, he would never have considered doing such a thing himself.

“I didn’t much like President Bush’s foreign policy but I never did anything like this and would never have considered writing a letter to Saddam Hussein or anybody else to undercut what President Bush was trying to do,’’ Brown said.

Portman told reporters in his Friday conference call that he expected criticism after signing the letter.

“It doesn’t surprise me that some disagree with me on that,’’ Portman said. “Governor Strickland came out yesterday – I haven’t seen exactly what he said – and criticized my involvement with the letter. That doesn’t surprise me.”

Portman said Strickland has been against a bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, and Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat; that would impose new economic sanctions on Iran if the Obama administration and international negotiators fail to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program by June 30.

Then, Portman brought up what have been the “magic words” so far in the Republican attacks on Strickland – the Center for American Progress.

The Center for American Progress is a liberal think tank based in Washington. Strickland, after campaigning in Ohio for Obama’s re-election in 2012, went to work as head of the Center’s Action Fund.

The GOP and the Portman campaign has been beating up Strickland – a supporter of gun rights and Ohio’s coal industry while a congressman from southeast Ohio – for his work at the Center, saying he lobbied for alternative fuels and for gun control.

Strickland quit his job at the center just before announcing his Senate candidacy last month.

“The Center for American Progress, the group (Strickland) was involved with until recently, has said they think it is a mistake to move ahead with the Menendez-Kirk bill,’’ Portman said. “They think it’s not a good idea. That’s a fundamental disagreement.”

And Portman resolutely defends his signing of the letter.

“I am hopeful that these negotiations can be successful,’’ Portman said. “We have to make sure we strengthen the administration in getting a verifiable agreement. I think the letter strengthen that.”

The Democrats may continue to try to use the GOP letter as a campaign issue against Republicans like Portman who will be running for re-election next year.

Whether or not it is an issue that has legs depends, most likely, on whether or not the administration gets an agreement from Iran that can be verified and will keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the regime in Tehran.

And, last but not least, a treaty that can be passed in the U.S. Senate.