U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) was not among the featured speakers at this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.
But as the gathering earlier this month focused squarely on the Iranian nuclear threat — along with the prospects of an Israeli or even an American pre-emptive strike — the senator from Scranton has been playing a leading role on the issue in Congress.
He was one of just 12 senators — including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 6, a day after the premier sat with President Barack Obama and before he addressed 13,000 AIPAC supporters.
Along with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Casey introduced a resolution, which has yet to pass, that expresses “the importance of preventing the government of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.” U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) is one of 50 co-sponsors of the measure.
He also met with Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States to press the issue.
Casey did address 400 Pennsylvanians attending the AIPAC conference at a separate Capitol Hill meeting last week. He said in an interview that he couldn’t go into details about talks with Netanyahu, but he did say, “It was good to hear his perspective” on the Iranian threat “because he was closer to it and is guided by the reality. It was good to hear his perspective on the relationship between our two countries.”
A day after Obama in a news conference warned of the consequences to the Jewish state and the United States if Israel struck “prematurely” — though the president did reiterate that Israel is a sovereign state — Casey said the United States cannot substitute its own judgment for Israel’s regarding the timing of a strike.
“He’s got to speak for himself, and I’ve got to speak for myself,” Casey said, referring to the president, a friend and sometime basketball partner. “Both countries have to be prepared, and I think we are prepared.”
Casey said he was “cautiously optimistic” that there is still time for additional sanctions and other non-military means to work to stop Iran from gaining weapons capability, but his own thoughts on the timing should be taken with a “grain of salt.”
“The people that are closest to this are people that will frankly be making the decision,” he said.
Casey, who is up for re-election this year, was considered a foreign policy neophyte when he announced his candidacy for the Senate in 2005. But he learned along the way and, in 2009, he was appointed chair of the subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian affairs. Since then, Casey has consistently spoken about the Iranian threat on the Senate floor and strongly urged passage of legislation that would increase sanctions on Iran.
Keith Cohen, a Blue Bell attorney who is a registered Democrat, was among the 400 AIPAC activists who were addressed by Casey, and then Toomey, in a session that was closed to the media.
“Bob Casey is absolutely unequivocally one of the leaders on this issue,” said Cohen, who attended the conference with his wife, Ellen, and their two college-age children. “He has spoken very clearly and consistently on the fact that there is no option on the table to allow Iran the means to obtain nuclear weapons.”
Matt Handel, a Republican activist who was also in the room, said, “Sen. Casey has taken an active role on Iran, just as Sen. Santorum did when he held the same seat.”
Toomey, the fiscal conservative who swept into office in 2010 on a wave of Tea Party-infused voter angst, took a slightly more critical tone of current U.S. policy on the issue in his speech to the Pennsylvania delegation.
According to a copy of Toomey’s remarks provided by his office, he said: “First, it was very disturbing to me when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, went on CNN and said, and I quote, ‘We think it is not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran,’ referring to Israel. Secretary of Defense Panetta made similar comments. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the wrong message to send to Iran.”
Toomey added: “None of us are looking forward to an attack, but none of us can ensure that we can have an Iran without nuclear weapons if we take off the table what might end up being the only measure that they will respond to. This is one of the reasons why I have been frustrated with what I perceive to be the glacial pace of the implementation of the most rigorous possible sanctions.”
Toomey was far from the only Republican at AIPAC to criticize the Obama administration’s handling of the Iran threat. McConnell, for example, delivered a highly critical address at the AIPAC plenary.
“If Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium at any level, then the U.S. will use overwhelming force to end the program,” said the Republican leader. “If the administration is unwilling to articulate it, then Congress will do it for them.”
Asked if there is bipartisan consensus on the Iran issue, Casey replied, “If there was ever an issue not to be partisan on, it’s this one.
“But even with the consensus,” he added, “you are going to have disagreements about emphasis. There aren’t many issues in Washington with this kind of bipartisan consensus.”