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Cardin to take Foreign Relations gavel after Menendez charges

Maryland Democrat has long made human rights a priority

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin has long focused on protecting human rights and stopping corruption abroad.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin has long focused on protecting human rights and stopping corruption abroad. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected 7:21 p.m. | History is repeating itself on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as Chairman Bob Menendez relinquishes his leadership position for a second time because of federal corruption charges, with Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin expected to take the gavel.

Cardin, D-Md., will take over with a few differences compared to the last time the transfer happened, in 2015. Unlike the last time, Democrats now hold the Senate, so passing the gavel will give him greater influence on the committee’s foreign policy agenda. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., hasn’t announced a decision but is expected to follow the precedent set in 2015 by then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. He asked Cardin, second in seniority on the committee, to take over. Back then it was to become acting ranking member.

Also different is that Cardin, who turns 80 in a few days, has said he will retire at the end of the current Congress. His leadership of the Foreign Relations panel is expected to be his swan song, particularly on advocating for human rights and combating global corruption, priorities that have long been dear to him.

A former senior Democratic committee staff member, given anonymity to discuss Cardin’s expected taking over, said he was “thrilled” to see him back in leadership even if it was again due to Menendez’s “poor decision-making.”

“[You] couldn’t find two more diametrically opposed senators in the same party,” in terms of personality and conduct, the former staffer said, contrasting Menendez’s famous stubbornness and willingness to publicly criticize Democratic presidents on foreign policy matters with Cardin’s mild-mannered and conciliatory approach.

Menendez’s previous corruption trial ended with a hung jury in 2017 and a Justice Department decision in 2018 to drop those charges a judge hadn’t thrown out. But the Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” the New Jersey Democrat for improperly accepting numerous gifts from a Florida eye specialist that were at the heart of the federal bribery case.

And unlike last time, Menendez, 69, is facing multiple calls to resign from his Democratic colleagues, including from House Foreign Affairs member Andy Kim, D-N.J., who announced over the weekend he would mount a 2024 primary challenge against the three-term senator.

But the calls aren’t coming from Cardin, who now leads the lower-profile Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. It’s unclear whether he would retain the Small Business post.

“Sen. Bob Menendez entered the U.S. Senate only one year ahead of me. We served in the House of Representatives together for nearly a decade,” Cardin said in a Friday statement that didn’t touch on plans for the committee. “He has left his mark on American diplomacy and national security as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, especially, as chair. I encourage everyone to allow the legal process to move forward without prejudice. Sen. Menendez has a right to respond aggressively in court to the current charges, and I am confident that he will do so.”

Anti-corruption, human rights focus

Cardin kept Democratic committee staff hired by Menendez in place last time and is expected to do so again. But as chairman he will be able to give his priorities more attention with high-profile hearings and even markups of bills he introduced or supports. 

“Now that Cardin is having to do this the second time because of Bob Menendez, anti-corruption and good governance will again be an extremely foot-forward, proactive element of the now chairman’s leadership,” predicted the former committee staffer.

Cardin’s biggest foreign policy achievement has been the passage of two sanctions laws he introduced or co-introduced with the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that focus on punishing human rights abusers and corrupt foreign officials. Those are the 2012 Russia-focused Sergei Magnitsky accountability law and the Global Magnitsky Act, which effectively globalized the sanctions contained in the first law.

Though the Obama administration was initially leery about some sanctions directives in the global measure, officials ultimately came to appreciate the new authorities. The imposition of Magnitsky sanctions has since been a frequent response to rights abuses around the world during the Obama, Trump and Biden presidencies.

Cardin, who is chair of the Foreign Relations subcommittee with oversight over State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development operations, has used his platform in other ways to highlight human rights. As ranking member, he held monthly foreign policy-focused news conferences where he began by profiling an individual foreign human rights activist experiencing persecution because of human rights work.

Earlier this summer, the Senate agreed without opposition to an amendment offered by Cardin and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., to the annual defense policy bill that would direct the State Department to establish a system for annually ranking foreign countries based on their level of corruption. It would further require an anti-corruption position to be set up at U.S. embassies in countries graded poorly on the issue.

The language was based on a bill Cardin introduced in January. The measure was folded into the annual State Department authorization bill, which the Foreign Relations Committee approved this summer.

On another long-running issue before the panel, what to do about military authorizations viewed by many Democrats and some Republicans as having outlived their usefulness, Cardin’s bill hints at how he might approach the thorny issue. The measure would repeal in July 2025 the open-ended 2001 counter-terrorism authorization for use of military force.

Previous chairs, including former Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Menendez and Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, weren’t able to thread the needle or even cared to try when it came to repeal of the 2001 AUMF, but Cardin has demonstrated he can get divisive but consequential foreign policy bills over the finish line and signed into law.

Tested negotiator

Shortly after taking over as ranking member in 2015, Cardin negotiated a compromise with Corker, which had eluded Menendez, that allowed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which had been stuck in committee, to swiftly advance and become law, including with the Obama administration’s reluctant support.

Many Democrats had reservations about whether Iran could be trusted to honor its nuclear pledges were it to receive the sanctions relief under the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration, but they also believed Republicans would abuse the oversight tools the measure would provide.

Cardin and Corker negotiated tweaks that left it possible for lawmakers to block implementation of the sanctions relief but only if they united in veto-proof majorities to do so, a high enough bar that calmed hesitant Democrats who didn’t want to see a “good enough” deal with Tehran ruined by what they viewed might be bad-faith attacks by Republicans.

“Not only did Cardin have to step up in leadership in an unprecedented situation… he had to step up in the midst of this extremely high-stakes diplomacy that we had going on within the P5+1 and with Iran to assert Congress’ role in U.S. foreign policy,” said the former committee aide. “It speaks to his ability to kind of cut through the noise and the clutter.”

The P5+1 refers to the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany, the countries involved in the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

“His relationships with Republicans really matter, and I know it is really trite to say but the Corker-Cardin relationship on so many issues ended up being a net positive rather than a net negative even to the frustration of the staff sometimes,” the aide said, adding that Democratic and Republican staff on the committee were at times “looking for a fight” over policy but Cardin and Corker would squelch it. “The two of them just wouldn’t go there. That is what they worked out, and that was how they got to do the up-or-down vote on the JCPOA [Iran nuclear deal].”

Cardin has deep ties to the traditional pro-Israel community dominated by groups like the bipartisan American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbied fiercely against the Iran deal. 

Even though he ultimately voted against the Iran deal, when Donald Trump became president and made clear his intentions to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear agreement, Cardin said it would be bad policy because Iran at the time, according to international monitors, was fulfilling its terms of the agreement.

“People love to accuse Bob Menendez about always wanting to poke a finger in the eye of Democratic presidents [like] Obama and Biden,” said the former committee staffer. “I think he relishes it a bit, he’s got that scrappy, fighter nature, but that is not in Cardin’s nature.”

This report was corrected to reflect Cardin’s previous role as acting ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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