WASHINGTON — 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.”
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