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