`I Still Pinch Myself'

A freshman again after two decades in the House of Representatives, Maryland's newest senator is enjoying himself - and not letting lack of seniority slow him down

Profile -- Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin

February 11, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun Staff

Washington -- For the first 15 minutes of his shift behind the president's desk, Benjamin L. Cardin has the Senate chamber pretty much to himself. He chats with aides, reads papers spread out on the desk in front of him, waits for a senator to speak.

Finally, Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, gets to his feet and holds forth on a proposal to raise the minimum wage. The chamber remains mostly empty.

Presiding over the Senate is a chore usually meted out to senators with the least seniority. Cardin, who has done it several times already during his first month, calls it "a thrill."

"I still pinch myself when I'm up there," the Maryland Democrat said after a recent turn behind the desk. It may come to seem like an unwelcome task, he added, but "not yet."

In his fifth decade as an elected official, Cardin is a freshman again. He doesn't expect to get the keys to his permanent office for another month or so. When seating arrangements for the Senate floor are updated for the new session, he'll be moved to the back of the room.

He says he's not letting it slow him down. On the day he was sworn in to succeed retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, he filed his first bill, a measure that would require the government to negotiate for lower drug prices. Within the week, he gave his first speech on the Senate floor, a broadside against Bush's plan to send more troops to Baghdad.

Once, new senators waited a respectable interval before giving their maiden speeches. Cardin says issues such as ethics reform, the minimum wage and the war demand his full participation now.

"Here we were taking up major legislation," he said. "It would be, I think, failing to represent your constituents if you were to sit still for two months."

Cardin was still in law school when he first won election to the House of Delegates, back in 1966. He entered the House of Representatives in 1987.

Now, at 63 - older than the average age in the current Senate - he is starting over. Still, he beams as he contrasts serving in the House, where he was one of 435 members, to life in the Senate, as one of 100.

One advantage of being in the smaller body, he says, is the opportunity to express himself. A congressman often has only a minute or two to speak on the House floor.

As he spoke, he was planning to give his second speech, in support of raising the minimum wage. But he still hadn't worked out exactly how he would put it.

"In the House, I would have had to time it, because I know if I had gotten time from the chairman [of the relevant committee] it would have been one minute, maybe two," he said. "And I would have had to sit over there for God knows how long.

"Today, I don't know what I'm going to say.

As a senator, "I can take more time. Because they never cut us off."

Senators also have the luxury of running for office only once every six years, unlike members of the House, whose two-year terms mean that the campaigning never stops.

Cardin also is enjoying the rules of the Senate, which allow extended debate on issues and - given the Democrats' narrow majority - require bipartisan collaboration.

"It requires more legislating," he said. "More true, old-fashioned legislating. Which means you need to make persuasive arguments, you need to be persistent, you need to find friends."

Colleagues say it is work for which Cardin is suited. Kyl says he and Cardin developed a "mutual respect" when they worked on the House ethics committee.

"That's a place where you get to know people and you have to work on really tough problems together," Kyl said. "He's a skilled lawyer and legislator."

Cardin has hired about 15 staff members to an office he expects to grow to about 40. Already on board are Chief of Staff Christopher Lynch, who held the same position for him in the House, and policy director Priscilla A. Ross, who also worked in his House office. He has retained projects director Charlie Stek from Sarbanes' office, and hired Senate veteran Gray Maxwell as floor manager.

He has opened his first district office, in Sarbanes' old space in downtown Baltimore, and plans to open another in Prince George's County. As the 91st senator in seniority - first among the freshmen, based on a point system that credits prior government experience - he remains weeks away from selecting his Capitol Hill office.

For now, he's working out of a temporary suite that he shares with four other freshmen, wedged between a freight elevator and the stationery room in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Not that he's complaining.

"This is bigger than my House office," he said of the crowded digs.

He already has seen Senate passage of his first legislation, an amendment to an ethics package to create a Web site that will allow the public to view senators' travel records.

He says he is working now on "four or five" bills on health care, education and energy. He declined to offer details, but said he would introduce them "when we have the right type of support."

Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, the state's senior senator, said Cardin "is in his element."

"I do like to legislate," he agreed. "I really like sitting down and arguing issues. I really like to be convinced. And I don't want to think I have to vote a certain way or there's an expectation I'm going to vote a certain way. I want to know what the right thing is. And I think the Senate gives you a much better ability to debate these issues. And that's what I'm excited about."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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