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Cardin Reluctantly Took Spotlight on Payroll Tax Debate

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Cardin — whom Van Hollen tabbed as a “good negotiator” — became the key player in the final hours of talks between the top lawmakers on the conference report, when it became clear no Senate Republicans would sign off on the deal. In order for a conference committee agreement to come to the floor in either chamber, a majority of the conferees in the House and Senate must sign it. In this case, four Senators needed to approve it and Cardin was the last Democratic holdout.

“It was a very fluid situation, the payfors,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a conferee. “And Sen. Cardin and others, we all were trying to make sure the burden didn’t fall unfairly on any one group of Americans, particularly after Republicans rejected categorically the surtax on the wealthiest Americans.”

But the high-profile negotiations, and the Maryland Democrat’s pivotal role in bringing them to a close, revealed to many what colleagues and staff already knew: Cardin is obsessed with legislating.

He sits on a wide-range of committees: Environment and Public Works, Foreign Relations, Finance, Budget and Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Some operatives who track Old Line State politics noted that Cardin has adopted the style of former Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D), who was a quieter presence in comparison to Maryland’s more fiery senior Senator, Barbara Mikulski. But others suggested that Cardin’s more progressive stands have put him squarely between the two.

“He’s a legislator. He understands the process. He’s a former [state] speaker, so the idea of gridlock is something that he really fights against because he understands that only working together are you going to get anything done,” said one Democratic aide.

“He’s a realist when he wants to be. ... He may not be a show horse, but he’s getting more and more attention,” the aide said.

In 2006, Cardin won the Democratic primary with 44 percent of the vote and the general election with 54 percent. A Democratic operative noted that the fact that Cardin is only facing a small field of primary challengers, in a state usually saturated with them, is a telling sign of his growing strength. And in a general election where Democrats are fighting for their political lives to keep the Senate, every race counts.

Until then, perhaps Members such as Cardin can count what could be the last major bill to come out of this Congress before November as a victory, even it was one taken begrudgingly.

“If I had my way, the midterm elections would have turned out differently,” Cardin said. “When you look at the bill that came over to us from the House, we can be very proud of what we were able to accomplish in this conference. That’s what a compromise is about.”

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