Now that Maryland voters have handed him six more years in office, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin has the freedom to do something many of his colleagues don’t amid the ongoing “fiscal cliff” negotiations: Keep an open mind.
As President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) work to strike a deficit-reduction deal, the Maryland Democrat has his own priorities. And he won’t rule anything out — even significant entitlement reforms or reductions that would affect his state’s huge population of federal employees.
“The federal workforce has already contributed,” Cardin said in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office. “I don’t want to see anything in this dealing with further cuts to the federal workforce, but I’m not going to draw any line in the sand.”
With the election over and a legislative to-do list, Cardin’s first task is simple: Let fellow senators know that he just won a race.
“I’ve had two of my colleagues come up to me and ask me when my reelection was,” Cardin said.
While Senate races across the country, including in neighboring Virginia, drew scads of attention, Cardin’s contest was never remotely competitive. He won with 56 percent of the vote; Republican Dan Bongino took 26 percent, and independent Rob Sobhani got 16 percent — after dumping more than $6 million from his own pocket into the race in the final months.
“I experienced something I’ve never experienced before: I was outspent, pretty dramatically. . . . This is probably the first election where I didn’t have as much control as I wanted to get a message out,” Cardin said.
While he’s pleased with the result, Cardin has little time to savor the victory, as he and everyone else in Washington warily eye the fiscal cliff talks.
As Republicans press for changes to entitlement programs, Cardin said all options are on the table, although he said the best way to reduce the deficit overall and to bolster the finances of Medicare and Medicaid is to cut the growth rate of health-care costs. Simply “shifting costs,” such as means-testing Medicare benefits or raising the eligibility age, won’t cure the broader problem, he said.
On looming defense cuts, Cardin sees both good and bad news for Maryland. “Our major military anchors . . . they’re pretty solid. I don’t see them going anywhere,” he said, referring to installations such as Fort Detrick, Fort Meade, Naval Air Station Patuxent River and Joint Base Andrews.
But if so-called sequestration cuts happen in January — with automatic defense cuts across the board — that will “hurt us badly,” Cardin said.
Although the negotiations are mostly taking place between two men — Obama and Boehner — Cardin, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, will get his shot next year if Congress takes up broader tax reform.
“If we are successful in getting revenue through [higher] rates to avoid the cliff, then I think tax reform can take place next year,” Cardin said. “We can get it done.”
Tax reform is one of a handful of topics he expects to devote significant work to in the next Congress. As chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, he will continue his focus on human rights.
Next year, he expects to take over the Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific affairs — a region that represents relatively new turf for Cardin, who has spent much of his career working on European issues. The panel is now helmed by retiring Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), an Asia expert.
Closer to home, Cardin sees little reason to believe that comprehensive legislation to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, which he has tried to move for several years, will have brighter prospects in the next Congress.
“There’s no reason to be more optimistic,” he said. “You still have the same problems in the House.”
Republicans in the House, particularly those with strong agricultural ties such as Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), have mostly opposed such Chesapeake measures, complaining that they are too onerous for farmers and businesses. But Cardin said that instead of moving a comprehensive bill, he “might break it apart” and seek to pass different pieces.
Cardin’s reelection got less attention than other issues on the ballot, including Question 7, which expanded gambling in the state. Cardin declined to take a position on the issue before Election Day, although he has long been wary of using gambling revenue to finance state operations.
Now that the measure has passed, Cardin said he wants “to make sure gambling works right,” adding that “National Harbor seems like a logical spot for an entertainment facility.”
Yet he has some doubts.
“I don’t know about this 24-hour thing and this table gaming,” he said. “You’re going to be involving a lot of people and there’s a lot more chance for games to be played. . . . I just hope it’s watched very closely and the legislature keeps control of this.”