Sen. Menendez likely to take Foreign Relations panel in wake of Kerry exit

Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) anticipated move to the State Department would leave the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the hands of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has consistently bucked the White House on Cuba and Iran.

Menendez is next in line to take over the panel if Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) opts to keep her chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, as is widely expected. That would give Menendez a key role in approving diplomatic nominees and international treaties — crucial leverage to demand a tougher stance against America's foes. 

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“You can't work around the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he's willing to dig in his heels on important issues,” said Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush who's enthused by Menendez's possible promotion. “At the same time, he's going to be expected to be a team player — but that has its limits.

“I think he'll give folks in the administration something to think about before they cross him, frankly.” 

The son of Cuban immigrants who left the island before the communist revolution, Menendez has joined other Cuban-American lawmakers in trying to block President Obama's overtures to the Castro regime. Freshly minted as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the spring of 2009, he blocked the president's nominees to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the White House Office of Science and Technology and threatened to vote against a $410 billion spending bill to avoid a government shutdown.

Provisions allowing Cuban-Americans to visit relatives once a year and ending limits on the sale of food and medicines to the island, he said on the Senate floor at the time, put “the omnibus appropriations package in jeopardy, in spite of all the other tremendously important funding that this bill would provide.” 

Menendez was able to extract a promise from the administration to narrowly interpret the Cuba language. He's kept up his criticism since then, decrying an “obvious double standard” for Cuba when compared to U.S. condemnation of the Soviet gulag during a recent Senate hearing and accusing the State Department of giving a “totalitarian regime … a platform from which to espouse its twisted rhetoric” by providing a visa to Fidel Castro's niece, Mariela. 

The fiery rhetoric is in sharp contrast to Kerry's steadfast support for Obama's foreign policy agenda, notably in successfully pushing the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia through the Senate. Kerry, who is respected for working across the aisle despite his unimpeachable Democratic credentials, won the support of Republican Sens. Dick Lugar (Ind.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.) on his panel.

Menendez, for his part, has been a tough Republican critic on domestic issues, repeatedly denouncing the party’s plans to turn Medicare into a “voucher,” for example. While not a traditional hawk — he voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution— he is close to Republicans on several foreign-policy issues. 

“When we were moving important legislation on Cuba, I think Bob Menendez was one of two or three people who actually understood the legislation,” said Noriega, an American Enterprise Institute fellow who helped draft the Helms-Burton law tightening the Cuba embargo in 1996, when Menendez was still in the House. “He's a very tough, serious, intelligent guy. I think he'll bring all those strengths at an important time to that job.” 

Menendez has also consistently called for a tougher approach to Iran. He coauthored, with Sen. Ron Kirk (R-Ill.), an amendment to the defense authorization bill targeting the Central Bank of Iran, which cleared the Senate earlier this month despite the White House's concerns. 

His office declined requests for comment.

Bradley Bosserman, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program for the liberal think tank NDN, said Obama and Kerry “know that productively engaging our European and Asian allies in a global campaign to isolate Tehran economically and diplomatically is the best policy.”

“There are others, though, who believe that an endless series of new, supposedly tougher sanctions is the best way to appear 'strong on Iran,’ ” he said. “Sen. Menendez has demonstrated an enthusiasm for leading this group and has shown no apprehension about publicly clashing with the administration over the issue. The problem ... is that their zeal to look tough discounts the realities of implementing complex sanction regimes that are coordinated with our allies — countries with diverse and distinct abilities to quickly comply with new sanctions.” 

A Senate Democratic aide counters that Menendez was focused on Iran long before it became a household issue. Over a two-decade career on Capitol Hill, the aide said, Menendez has acquired more depth on a broad array of foreign-policy issues than almost any other lawmaker, including helping write legislation responding to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and leading hearings to revamp U.S. development aid.

“To focus on two issues [Cuba and Iran] is a very narrow way of looking” at his career, the aide said. “He is vocal and strong about anything he cares about. That's one of his strengths.”

Menendez has been under several ethical clouds, however. 

The senator made national news this month when one of his interns was arrested and revealed to be an illegal immigrant and a sex offender. And his decision earlier this year to block Obama's nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, New Jersey federal judge Patty Shwartz, was seen by critics as retribution for her companion's probe into Menendez's potential conflict of interest with a Federally Qualified Health Center during his 2006 Senate run. 

Menendez eventually lifted his hold on Shwartz and denies being motivated by payback. He has also said he did not know of his intern's legal status.