Menendez’s Foreign Relations Loss Is White House’s Gain

In Ben Cardin, the Obama administration has gained a key ally on Iran and Cuba policies.

Senator Robert Menendez (R), D-NJ, chats with Senator Ben Cardin, D-MD, before the start of the Senate Finance Committee on the nomination of former White House chief of staff Jacob Lew to be treasury secretary on February 13, 2013 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
April 2, 2015, 10:44 a.m.

With Ben Cardin tak­ing the in­dicted Robert Men­en­dez’s slot as the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat, the White House is los­ing its staunchest in­tra­party op­pon­ent on two of the biggest for­eign policy is­sues fa­cing the ad­min­is­tra­tion—Ir­an and Cuba—and gain­ing an im­port­ant ally.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id’s of­fice made it of­fi­cial Thursday that Cardin will step in­to Men­en­dez’s role—tem­por­ar­ily, at least—while Men­en­dez fights fed­er­al cor­rup­tion charges. In style and some is­sues of sub­stance, the two Demo­crats could not be more dif­fer­ent.

Cardin is a soft-spoken deal-maker whose policy views are much more in line with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s than the brash New Jer­sey law­maker who has nev­er been afraid to voice his op­pos­i­tion to Pres­id­ent Obama’s policy agenda.

“There was a lot of ten­sion in the White House-Men­en­dez re­la­tion­ship, so I think the re­la­tion­ship with Sen­at­or Cardin will start in a much bet­ter place,” one Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide said Thursday.

Un­like Men­en­dez, Cardin has pushed for Con­gress to rat­i­fy and ex­pand upon Obama’s moves to nor­mal­ize dip­lo­mat­ic re­la­tions with Cuba. And he told Bloomberg just this week that, un­like the highly skep­tic­al Men­en­dez, he be­lieves an “ef­fect­ive agree­ment” with Ir­an over its nuc­le­ar policy is pos­sible. (A deal on a frame­work for an agree­ment was an­nounced Thursday, just minutes after Cardin’s new job be­came of­fi­cial.)

“I really take is­sue with those who are say­ing we can’t have an ef­fect­ive agree­ment,” Cardin told Bloomberg.

In a state­ment is­sued after he of­fi­cially as­sumed the job Thursday, Cardin said: “It is clear to all of us that the press­ing na­tion­al se­cur­ity chal­lenges fa­cing our na­tion re­quire hav­ing act­ive and ef­fect­ive lead­er­ship in our en­gage­ment with [For­eign Re­la­tions Chair­man Bob] Cork­er and the White House. Amer­ica is al­ways stronger when we speak with one voice on for­eign policy is­sues. The Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee has an im­port­ant role in de­fin­ing that uni­fied voice for Amer­ica.”

Cardin said he was look­ing for­ward to work­ing with Cork­er, high­light­ing their mu­tu­al in­terest in com­batting hu­man traf­fick­ing, but ad­ded: “I plan to en­gage Sen­at­or Cork­er in ad­di­tion­al ef­forts to pro­tect hu­man rights, trans­par­ency and good gov­ernance world­wide, in­clud­ing pas­sage of the Sergei Mag­nit­sky Glob­al Hu­man Rights Ac­count­ab­il­ity Act,” which would ex­pand sanc­tions against hu­man rights ab­users around the world.

Rep. Chris Van Hol­len, a fel­low Marylander and former staffer on the For­eign Re­la­tions pan­el, said Cardin “has his own views and po­s­i­tions on is­sues and con­siders each is­sue on the mer­its. He also has a very close work­ing re­la­tion­ship with the White House, so I think there’s a com­bin­a­tion of qual­it­ies and as­sets will serve the coun­try well.”

Cardin’s close­ness with the ad­min­is­tra­tion could change the dy­nam­ic between Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee.

Men­en­dez earned the re­spect of his Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues in part be­cause of his pub­lic dis­tance from Obama on Ir­an, Cuba, and oth­er for­eign policy mat­ters. When the White House got Men­en­dez to agree to hold off on passing ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions against Ir­an un­til April—after he threatened to sup­port sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion in March—Men­en­dez was able to earn the agree­ment of the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity, in part be­cause of his staunch sup­port for the sanc­tions them­selves.

Cardin, on the oth­er hand, is sup­port­ive of ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions against Ir­an but only if the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an fail. Cardin joined Men­en­dez in sign­ing a let­ter ur­ging Re­pub­lic­ans to move back their time line on Ir­an le­gis­la­tion to mid-April that lis­ted him as a “sup­port­er” of the le­gis­la­tion Men­en­dez coau­thored with Cork­er re­quir­ing con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al of any Ir­an deal. But Cardin has not signed onto the bill as a co­spon­sor.

Still, Cardin has worked well with Re­pub­lic­ans both on and off the com­mit­tee. He is close with Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er of Mis­sis­sippi, the new chair­man of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, and has worked with Wick­er and Sens. John Mc­Cain and Marco Ru­bio, a mem­ber of the For­eign Re­la­tions com­mit­tee, on hu­man-rights is­sues in Rus­sia and China. Cardin has also worked closely with Sen. Jeff Flake, one of the few vo­cal Re­pub­lic­ans who sup­ports re­open­ing re­la­tions with Cuba.

In some cases, that has put him at odds with the White House. Cardin wrote a let­ter along with Wick­er and Sen. Susan Collins this week ur­ging the ad­min­is­tra­tion not to by­pass dir­ect ne­go­ti­ations between Is­rael and Palestine in fa­vor of a U.N. ne­go­ti­ation.

And Cardin has also broken with the White House re­cently in their push to pass a new Au­thor­iz­a­tion for the Use of Mil­it­ary Force against IS­IS. Cardin, who voted against the Ir­aq War au­thor­iz­a­tion in 2002, joined oth­er Demo­crats in voicing con­cerns about the po­ten­tial for ground-troop de­ploy­ment in the ef­fort and warned that the lack of a sun­set for the 2001 AUMF (which he sup­por­ted at the time) “could be au­thor­iz­ing a state of per­petu­al war.”

Men­en­dez shares those con­cerns about what he has termed “ground-troop creep,” but in his own draft of an AUMF re­leased last year, he too left the 2001 AUMF in place.

On Cuba, though, Cardin has been more closely aligned with the White House. When the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced a deal with Cuba that in­cluded the re­lease of im­prisoned Marylander Alan Gross, Men­en­dez was highly crit­ic­al of the agree­ment, com­plain­ing that “Obama’s ac­tions have vin­dic­ated the bru­tal be­ha­vi­or of the Cuban gov­ern­ment.”

Cardin, on the oth­er hand, was much more op­tim­ist­ic, ex­press­ing hope that “we can move on to­geth­er to­ward a more fruit­ful re­la­tion­ship with one of our closest neigh­bors.”

This art­icle has been up­dated.

Rachel Roubein contributed to this article.
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