Md. Senators Could Soon Have a Friend in the White House

Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen (left) and Benjamin L. Cardin are calling for more help for businesses to survive the COVID-19 crisis. Photo by Robin Bravender

Back in 2012, then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen was picked to play Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan in mock debates against Vice President Joe Biden. 

The Maryland Democrat — who knew Ryan well from their time sparring against each other on the House Budget Committee — spent several days with Biden in what he called a “Delaware boot camp,” a room set up to resemble a real debate stage. 

It was a fun experience, and a chance to get to know Biden well, Van Hollen told Maryland Matters in a recent interview. “Rarely do you get the opportunity to beat the hell out of the vice president of the United States and be thanked for it at the end of the day.” 

Van Hollen and his fellow Maryland Democrat, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, have both worked closely with Biden and with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. It appears all but certain that either Biden or Sanders will become the Democratic presidential nominee, although Biden has emerged as the frontrunner. 

Neither Cardin nor Van Hollen has offered an endorsement in the primary, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be forced to choose between Biden and Sanders before Maryland’s primary, now rescheduled for June 2; the two-man race may be whittled down to one man by that point. 

But regardless of which candidate clinches the Democratic nomination, both Cardin and Van Hollen say they’re ready to help advance the nominee’s agenda from within the Senate, should the Democrat oust President Trump in the fall. 

“I’d look forward to working with both of them. I’ve got good working relationships with both,” Van Hollen said. “Obviously, on the campaign trail, some of these differences become the center of attention. It remains very true that the differences between those two and Donald Trump are like night and day.” 

Cardin said that both Biden and Sanders have “a great deal of experience” and would bring different strengths to the job. “My number one priority is to make sure that Donald Trump is not president of the United States after this election,” Cardin said in an interview. “To me, that’s the most important thing for this country. That’s more important than who — whether Biden or Sanders — would be the better president.”

‘Common vision’ with Biden

Cardin overlapped with Biden in the Senate for two years before Biden became vice president in early 2009. Biden was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee when Cardin, then a freshman, landed on the panel in 2007. 

Much of their work together occurred during the Obama administration, when Cardin worked closely with Biden on foreign policy issues. 

“It was a really good relationship. We could reach common ground and I appreciated that, but also understood that In some respects, Joe Biden was closer to my views than Barack Obama on some foreign policy issues that we were working on,” Cardin said. “Then I saw how he could bridge the difference and come back and bring us together. I really do believe he was born to be a statesman in regards to trying to listen to people and get things done.”

Cardin said he and Biden have a “common vision as to how the U.S. should play in the global community, so I think on foreign policy, the two of us would have a pretty close relationship if he were president.” 

Cardin expects he’d also work with a Biden administration on other areas, too, including pension reform and health care. 

“I expect I’d have a role to play in formulating the administration’s priorities and positions and then have a role to play in the United States Senate to find a way to get to the finish line,” he said. 

Van Hollen’s work with Biden dates back to the 1980s, when Van Hollen was an aide on the Foreign Relations Committee and Biden was in his second decade serving on the panel as a senator from Delaware. 

“I would work very closely, I think, with Joe Biden, if he were to become president,” Van Hollen said. 

Van Hollen, who moved from the House to the Senate in 2017, didn’t serve with Biden in the Senate. But after Biden became vice president, Van Hollen worked closely with him on budget issues and foreign policy. 

“He was designated by President Obama as the administration’s point person on budget issues and I was the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee … so I worked very closely with him,” Van Hollen said. 

House mates

Cardin and Van Hollen both served with Sanders in the U.S. House and have served with him in the Senate for the duration of their careers there. All three of them sit on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. 

“Senator Sanders and I came to the Senate on the same day,” Cardin said. They both assumed their Senate seats on Jan. 3, 2007. They’d previously been longtime colleagues in the House — Cardin was elected in 1986 and Sanders in 1990. 

“We’ve known each other for a long time,” Cardin said. “We are friends.” 

Neither Cardin nor Van Hollen has signed on to Sanders’ most high-profile policy initiative, his Medicare for All legislation. 

Still, both of the Maryland senators vote with Sanders the vast majority of the time. Cardin voted with Sanders 75% of the time in the current Congress, according to a ProPublica analysis. Van Hollen voted with Sanders 83% of the time

“We do have a different view about how far government should go and how quickly government should go,” Cardin said of Sanders. “But he’s never used that or I’ve never used that to put a wedge between the two of us working together.” 

Van Hollen said that while he hasn’t signed on to the Medicare for All bill, he has signed on to other efforts to expand access to health care. Van Hollen and Sanders are both co-sponsors of Green New Deal legislation and Van Hollen cited their work together on an education funding effort and a bill aimed at ending some tax advantages for CEOs contributing to retirement plans. 

Former Maryland Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest said he expects Cardin and Van Hollen would work well with either Sanders or Biden, if they were in the White House. 

Biden would likely be “in lockstep” with the Maryland senators “and he’d be dependent on both of them,” Gilchrest said. But they might find less common ground with Sanders on policies. “It would be a little slower with Bernie,” said Gilchrest. 

It’s not entirely clear how Sanders would pursue his agenda in Congress, Cardin said. 

“Bernie Sanders is going to have to find a way — if he’s president — to get a working majority in the Congress, which recognizes that he’s going to have to come more into the center in order for that to happen,” he said. “That’s going to be a challenge because of the way he has conducted his political life. … I think I could be part of that because I very much want to have a working majority. I just don’t want to score personal victories, I want to make sure we get things accomplished.” 

Former Maryland Democratic chairwoman Susan W. Turnbull expects both Cardin and Van Hollen to be “team players regardless of what comes of this.” 

She pointed to the saying that there are workhorses and show horses in Congress. “Both Chris and Ben are workhorses,” she said.

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