Rights advocate Cardin replaces Menendez as US Senate Foreign Relations chair

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senator Ben Cardin will serve as chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, replacing Bob Menendez, who faces felony bribery charges, after the Senate agreed to a resolution on Wednesday naming him to the position.

Menendez pleaded not guilty to the charges earlier on Wednesday.

It is the second time Cardin, a senior senator known for human rights advocacy, replaces fellow Democrat Menendez in committee leadership. Cardin also stepped in from April 2015 to February 2018 after Menendez faced federal corruption charges that were later dropped. At that time Menendez was ranking member, the panel’s top member from the minority party.

A three-term senator who turns 80 next week, Cardin has announced that he will not run for re-election next year.

Menendez last week stepped down from his role as chairman of the committee, as required under his party’s rules because he is facing felony charges. More than half of the Senate Democratic caucus has called for Menendez to resign.

Less hawkish than Menendez, Cardin has focused on human rights throughout his career, notably by authoring the Magnitsky Act, named for a lawyer who exposed corruption in Russia before dying in prison.

Passed in 2012 and expanded globally in 2016, the act allowed the U.S. government to sanction individuals involved in human rights violations, not just governments.

Menendez was an ally to Democratic presidents on most foreign policy issues, but became known for breaking with them, at times vociferously, in some high-profile cases.

The son of immigrants from Cuba, Menendez criticized then-President Barack Obama’s easing of relations with the Communist-ruled island and President Joe Biden’s moves toward talks with Venezuela.

But Cardin has also broken with Democrats, including in 2015, when he and Menendez were two of only four Democratic senators who voted against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Cardin’s appointment could signal a shift in policy toward Egypt, accused of bribing Menendez to use his influence on Egypt’s behalf. Cardin criticized Biden’s decision this month to release $235 million in military aid to Egypt.

“If we want to show the world that respect for human rights is a core dimension of U.S. national security interests, we need to do more in holding wayward governments accountable,” Cardin said in a statement.

Some lawmakers have called for a reassessment of the administration’s decision on aid to Egypt in light of Menendez’s charges.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Timothy Gardner)