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.
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.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.