© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) walks through the Senate subway on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz/File Photo
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The charges against Democratic Senator Bob Menendez will cost President Joe Biden one of his most effective allies in Congress as he rallies support for aid to Ukraine and works to reclaim U.S. leadership on global issues from climate change to China.
U.S. prosecutors on Friday charged Menendez and his wife with three felony conspiracy counts of bribery, fraud and extortion over their relationship with businessmen in his home state of New Jersey.
Menendez said he decided to step down temporarily as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has denied wrongdoing and said he plans to continue to work for the people of New Jersey despite what he described as a “smear campaign.”
The senator is no stranger to controversy.
He stepped aside as the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee in 2015 after he was indicted over what prosecutors said was a scheme to trade political favors for luxury vacations and campaign donations. He was reinstated as the panel’s top Democrat in early 2018 after the Justice Department dropped its case.
Friday’s indictment came as the Biden administration engages in an ambitious effort to rebuild U.S. alliances to counter a more aggressive China and sustain political support for Ukraine’s war against Russian forces, which has cost the United States more than $100 billion.
Menendez has been a crucial partner for Biden on these and other foreign policy priorities. He has steered the confirmations of dozens of Biden’s appointees through the Senate, and forcefully helped make Biden’s case for additional humanitarian, economic and military assistance for Ukraine.
“Like him or dislike him, Menendez has played an incredibly influential role when it comes to shaping U.S. foreign policy,” said Daniel Vajdich, a Republican former Foreign Relations Committee staffer.
Vajdich noted that Menendez’s departure adds to uncertainty on Capitol Hill about foreign policy, given sharp divisions among Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, on issues like aid to Ukraine.
Menendez is expected to be succeeded as chairman by Senator Ben Cardin, who stepped in as the panel’s top Democrat in 2015, when Menendez was indicted on charges that were later dropped.
At a White House press briefing, spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on the charges.
UKRAINE AID IN QUESTION
Congress is now considering Biden’s request from July for $24 billion more on top of $113 billion already sent to Kyiv, an appeal that faces resistance from many hard-right Republicans as lawmakers scramble to fund the government before a Sept. 30 deadline.
The committee chair is the top foreign policy position in Congress.
As chairman, Menendez writes legislation, sets the agenda for committee hearings, oversees the president’s nominations for a wide range of national security positions subject to Senate confirmation and reviews most international weapons sales.
Suzanne Wrasse, a spokesperson for Senator Jim Risch, the committee’s top Republican, said Risch hoped for guidance from Democratic leadership soon on next steps.
Menendez has been an ally to Biden on Ukraine against what he has called Russia’s “brutal assault.” And he has worked with the administration and Senate leaders on China, including a major bill to boost the U.S. semiconductor industry that became law last year.
He has not always seen eye-to-eye with Democratic presidents. Menendez opposed then-President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and any talk of reviving the agreement.
Under Senate Democratic Conference rules, any member charged with a felony must give up his or her committee leadership position.
Menendez is not required to resign from the Senate and can return to his committee post if the charges are dropped or reduced to less than a felony.