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Cardin Reluctantly Took Spotlight on Payroll Tax Debate

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

On Thursday afternoon, Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) stood before his colleagues in an ornate meeting room just off the Senate floor to deliver an impassioned speech about the Democratic party’s responsibility to defend federal workers.

The closed-door caucus address seemed to be a defining moment for Cardin, a Senator characterized by colleagues, staff and Maryland political operatives as a hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of legislator who doesn’t always display the flash of some of his more media-hungry contemporaries.

And it came barely half a day after a feverish late-night negotiating session in which Cardin, and fellow conferee Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), worked to exempt current federal employees from having to contribute more to their pension plans as part of the payroll tax extension deal.

It was an agreement that, in the end, both Cardin and Van Hollen would vote against. But not before getting a call from President Barack Obama and sending a message to their respective leaders that enough is enough.

“This beating up on federal workers has to come to an end. We have frozen their pay, we have cut their benefits — at least from incoming, new federal employees — and it’s time for us to stand up and defend the men and women who are really performing vital services for our country,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of the message delivered in the meeting.

Though Cardin said he was ultimately disappointed in the legislation, which passed both chambers with bipartisan votes Friday, there could be a political silver lining to the ordeal, beyond delivering a coveted policy win for Obama.

The very public fight to keep current federal workers from paying the tab for unemployment benefits is likely to play well at home in Maryland, just a few miles from the District, where Cardin is running for a second term this November.

“Oh I think so,” Van Hollen, the former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, said when asked if this week’s battle could be an effective campaign point. “In other words, I think he’s demonstrated that we went to bat for federal employees and as a result of our efforts, current federal employees were held harmless. There’s a big different between taking $40 billion away out of current federal employees than taking $0.”

“The politics will play out, but I think we were worried about the policy. I genuinely mean that,” Cardin said Thursday in a brief interview, before he got on the phone yet again with Van Hollen to discuss a joint statement announcing that they would allow the conference report to move forward.

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