Menendez Gives Up Foreign Relations Post

The senator’s decision—which he hopes will be temporary—will deprive Democrats of a key hawkish voice on foreign policy issues amidst multiple crises abroad.

US President Barack Obama clasps hands with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (2nd R), D-NV, while meeting with members of Congress on foreign policy on July 31, 2014 in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC. From left: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-NJ, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker, R-TN. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
April 1, 2015, 12:35 p.m.

Sen. Robert Men­en­dez vol­un­tar­ily stepped down as rank­ing mem­ber of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Wed­nes­day fol­low­ing an in­dict­ment on fed­er­al charges of bribery and con­spir­acy, though he is fight­ing the al­leg­a­tions and hopes to re­turn to the post.

“I am hereby no­ti­fy­ing you that I am tem­por­ar­ily step­ping down as Rank­ing Mem­ber of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee,” Men­en­dez wrote in a let­ter to Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id. “While there is no caucus rule that dic­tates that I do so, I be­lieve it is in the best in­terests of the Com­mit­tee, my col­leagues, and the Sen­ate which is why I have chosen to do so.”

The man who is ex­pec­ted to suc­ceed Re­id, who is re­tir­ing, made clear Wed­nes­day that he was stand­ing by Men­en­dez.

“Bob Men­en­dez is one of the best le­gis­lat­ors in the Sen­ate and is al­ways fight­ing hard for the people of his state. I am con­fid­ent he will con­tin­ue to do so in the weeks and months ahead,” said Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, the likely next Demo­crat­ic lead­er.

(RE­LATED: Full Text of Bob Men­en­dez In­dict­ment)

Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip Dick Durbin said in his own state­ment that “it was the right de­cision for Sen­at­or Men­en­dez to step aside from his com­mit­tee lead­er­ship post un­til the mat­ter is re­solved.”

Men­en­dez’s in­dict­ment had put Re­id in a tough po­s­i­tion.

With the in­dict­ment of one of his top com­mit­tee lead­ers, Re­id was left with a dif­fi­cult choice: Should he re­move Men­en­dez as the party’s head of the For­eign Re­la­tions com­mit­tee or buck re­cent pre­ced­ent and keep the now-in­dicted New Jer­sey Demo­crat in place?

Neither op­tion was good. And Men­en­dez saved the lead­er a head­ache by vol­un­tar­ily step­ping aside on Wed­nes­day.

Sen. Bar­bara Box­er would be next in line to take Men­en­dez’s po­s­i­tion, but is ex­pec­ted to stay on as rank­ing mem­ber of En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works. That would put Sen. Ben­jamin Cardin in po­s­i­tion to take the For­eign Re­la­tions post.

(RE­LATED: Sen. Bob Men­en­dez Just Got In­dicted. Here Are the Charges)

Sen. Bob Cork­er, the chair­man of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, had pos­it­ive words for Men­en­dez after the news of the in­dict­ment and Men­en­dez’s soon-to-be-di­min­ished com­mit­tee role broke Wed­nes­day. “While I have no know­ledge of the ju­di­cial mat­ters at hand, I ap­pre­ci­ate his bi­par­tis­an work on for­eign re­la­tions is­sues and ex­pect he will con­tin­ue to play a con­struct­ive role,” Cork­er said in a state­ment.

But Men­en­dez’s choice leaves Demo­crats without one of the toughest and most well-re­spec­ted com­mit­tee lead­ers in their caucus, a former chair­man of the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, and a rank­ing mem­ber who is able to work with Re­pub­lic­ans and has earned their re­spect through his oc­ca­sion­al battles with the White House over for­eign policy.

Leav­ing him in place, however, would have rep­res­en­ted a huge break with what has be­come the norm among House Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans in both cham­bers, in which in­dicted mem­bers have been tem­por­ar­ily re­moved from their lead­er­ship posts as the courts con­sider their charges. It would also have opened up Re­id to fur­ther at­tacks from Re­pub­lic­ans, who have already poin­ted tohis ques­tion­ing by Justice De­part­ment of­fi­cials in the Men­en­dez case. (There is no in­dic­a­tion that Re­id was im­plic­ated in any of the charges brought against Men­en­dez).

A Re­id spokes­man did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to re­quests for com­ment Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon.

John Har­wood, a re­port­er forThe New York Timesand CN­BC,tweetedWed­nes­day that Re­id had said of Men­en­dez: “He called this morn­ing, said he thought he’d be in­dicted. He’s my friend, great sen­at­or. Do whatever I can to help.”

(RE­LATED: Bob Men­en­dez Just Be­came the 12th Sen­at­or in His­tory To Be In­dicted)

The tim­ing could not be worse. Men­en­dez’s in­dict­ment comes less than two weeks be­fore the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee is set to take up le­gis­la­tion re­quir­ing con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al of a still hy­po­thet­ic­al White House nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an, something Men­en­dez has been work­ing on—and threat­en­ing the White House over—for months. Next, the com­mit­tee will turn back to the U.S. fight against IS­IS, tak­ing up an Au­thor­iz­a­tion for the Use of Mil­it­ary Force that Men­en­dez has been a key play­er in ne­go­ti­at­ing with the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Re­pub­lic­ans.

“He’s been a very strong sup­port­er of the state of Is­rael. He’s been a very—well, let’s face it, a pretty strong crit­ic of this ad­min­is­tra­tion’s lack of strategy. There’s an aw­ful lot that I agree with Sen­at­or Men­en­dez on on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee,” Sen. Ron John­son, a Re­pub­lic­an on the pan­el, said last month.

With a new rank­ing mem­ber, Demo­crats stand to lose a lot of their clout in both fights un­der the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity.

Men­en­dez’s move could ruffle feath­ers with­in the Demo­crat­ic caucus as well. Be­fore the in­dict­ment be­came of­fi­cial on Wed­nes­day, Men­en­dez’s Demo­crat­ic col­leagues on the For­eign Re­la­tions pan­el were largely sup­port­ive of their rank­ing mem­ber. “I’ve not read any­thing spe­cif­ic that con­vinces me that there’s enough of a prob­lem that there should be any ac­tion,” Sen. Sher­rod Brown of Ohio toldNa­tion­al Journ­alin March.

Wheth­er the spe­cif­ics of the charges laid out on Wed­nes­day will weak­en that sup­port re­mains to be seen.

Un­like Re­pub­lic­ans, Sen­ate Demo­crats do not have a spe­cif­ic rule or policy re­quir­ing that in­dicted mem­bers be tem­por­ar­ily re­moved from their com­mit­tee lead­er­ship posts. But pre­ced­ent provides a clear path. Most re­cently, the late Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ted Stevens was re­moved from his rank­ing mem­ber po­s­i­tions upon his in­dict­ment for cor­rup­tion in 2008. And in the House, Rep. Charlie Ran­gel gave up his chair­man­ship of the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee in 2010 after the eth­ics com­mit­tee found that he had vi­ol­ated House rules and a num­ber of col­leagues pushed for his ouster.

On the House GOP side, Rep. Tom DeLay stepped down as ma­jor­ity lead­er when he was in­dicted in 2005. Some oth­er House Re­pub­lic­ans have been pres­sured by party lead­er­ship to give up key posts amid eth­ics scan­dals, even be­fore they were ac­tu­ally in­dicted.

Re­id had been care­ful over the last month not to leave any hints about what he might do if Men­en­dez were in­dicted, say­ing that he wouldn’t make a de­cision—or dis­cuss his think­ing—un­til after the facts were laid clear.

Asked in March, shortly after news of the pending in­dict­ment broke, about his con­fid­ence in Men­en­dez, Re­id said: “Sen­at­or Men­en­dez has done a stel­lar job as chair of the com­mit­tee, and as far as I am con­cerned, he’s been an out­stand­ing sen­at­or.”

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