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Menendez indictment could create committee opening for Cardin

Sen. Ben Cardin
Sen. Ben Cardin

WASHINGTON -- The indictment of New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez on corruption charges Wednesday could have significant implications for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- and it could also provide an unexpected opportunity for Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin.

Menendez is the top Democrat on the committee. If he steps down from the position to deal with the indictment Cardin is in line for the job.

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A federal grand jury on Wednesday indicted Menendez on charges including conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud. The charges come at a time when the Obama administration is negotiating a touchy nuclear deal with Iran, a process Menendez has criticized.

The next most senior Democrat on Foreign Relations is California Sen. Barbara Boxer. But Boxer already is the top-ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee -- and most observers believe she will remain in that job.

That leaves Cardin as the next most senior lawmaker on the committee.

A spokeswoman for Cardin declined to comment on the matter.

Maryland's junior senator has become increasingly vocal on international affairs. A former co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- the so-called Helsinki Commission – Cardin has been a stalwart advocate for human rights.

In 2012 he successful steered legislation through Congress to pressure Russia on human rights abuses despite concerns from the Obama administration and Moscow. He is also the ranking member of the subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy.

Menendez has acknowledged that he flew multiple times on a private jet owned by Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy doctor, and initially failed to properly pay for the trips. Menendez subsequently agreed to reimburse Melgen for several flights.

Menendez has also acknowledged taking actions that could benefit Melgen, among them contacting U.S. health agencies to ask about billing practices and policies.

But the lawmaker has said he did nothing wrong and that he and Melgen have been friends for decades.

It's not clear whether Menendez would step down. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid declined to say last month whether he felt Menendez should leave the post if charges were filed.

Senate Republicans require committee chairs to "temporarily step aside" if they are under indictment, but Democrats have no similar policy.

Cardin is currently the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.

Menendez and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee introduced a bill in February that would give Congress 60 days to review any deal the Obama administration strikes with Iran -- a proposal that is expected to advance next month despite opposition from the White House.

Cardin has not signed on to that bill. Though he has been a proponent of stiffer sanctions against Iran he has been among a group of lawmakers willing to give the administration more time to negotiate an agreement.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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