Nobody in the Senate is ready to write off Robert Menendez.
As reports circulate that federal corruption charges are forthcoming against the New Jersey Democrat for wielding his political power in exchange for gifts from a donor, there is more skepticism surrounding the nature of the expected indictment then there is indignation against Menendez.
Among both Democrats and Republicans, Menendez—the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—still is a highly revered member of the body, innocent until proven otherwise.
"I mean, this is just way too premature," Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday. "We have a leaked report to a media outlet that is totally insubstantial, in my view, to require us to have any conversations about next steps."
Since news broke Friday that federal corruption charges were coming, Menendez has maintained his innocence and conducted business as usual on and around Capitol Hill. On Monday, he spoke to the Center for Strategic and International Studies and called on the Obama administration to do more to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia. On Tuesday, he performed his duties as ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on the ongoing conflict in that region. And on Wednesday, he grilled Secretary of State John Kerry on the details of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIS.
"You listen to the questions that Senator Menendez has posed in these hearings or what he's been saying behind closed doors in our caucus, he's still our acknowledged leader on questions of foreign policy," Murphy said.
Sen. Ben Cardin, who would replace Menendez as ranking member on foreign relations if he steps down, said Wednesday he would not comment on the reported charges.
"Nothing has been official, and I think I speak for the Democrats, if not all the Democrats, maybe all the members, that we're not going to prejudge until circumstances indicate that we need to," the Maryland Democrat said.
Republicans are, so far, also resisting the political urge to pile on their Democratic colleague, considering the circumstances surrounding the alleged indictment.
"I do think that leaks of pending charges are inappropriate, no matter who the subject is," Sen. Susan Collins told National Journal.
The GOP has a unique relationship with Menendez. He is a Democrat, but the New Jersey senator remains a key ally against the Obama administration's foreign policy.
"I'm not sure he has been sidelined right now, because the charges have not been brought against him," Sen. John McCain said. "He is still—at least in my estimation—highly regarded and highly effective."
From Iran to Cuba, Menendez has not shied away from a confrontational relationship with the White House. And Republicans often point to Menendez's views in an effort to validate their long list of complaints against Obama's foreign policy doctrine.
Menendez's counterpart on the Foreign Relations Committee, Chairman Bob Corker, says he won't be entertaining hypotheticals on the future of a committee without Menendez.
"I have a very good working relationship with him. He was a great chairman, he's been very good to work with as ranking member, and I look forward to continuing to do so," the Tennessee Republican told National Journal.
Menendez has prided himself on being an independent thinker—not beholden to anyone, even his own party's commander in chief. During an address at the AIPAC policy conference last week, Menendez said it succinctly.
"When it comes to defending the U.S.-Israel relationship, I am not intimidated by anyone—not Israel's political enemies and not by my political friends when I believe they're wrong," he said.
Menendez's adversarial relationship with the White House has given fuel to rumblings on Capitol Hill, however, that the upcoming charges against him are not just merely bad timing, but politically motivated. After all, some argue that Menendez is a clear obstacle for the Obama administration as it charts out its final two-year foreign policy agenda.
For Menendez, this goes beyond talk. On Cuba, Menendez is vehemently against normalizing relations with a country that has a record of human-rights abuses. And on Iran, Menendez is a lead sponsor of legislation that would give Congress final say if the U.S. manages to cut a nuclear deal with Iran that rolls back congressionally authorized sanctions.
This has led some senators to more explicitly suggest an ulterior motive for the leaks. The report on the charges "came right after a bold speech from Senator Menendez that he wants to look at the [Iran] deal, too," says Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "I don't know what happened, but it sure doesn't smell right."
During a trip to Iowa over the weekend, NBC News reported that Sen. Ted Cruz said the "timing was curious."
"It raises a suggestion to other Democrats that if you dare part from the Obama White House, that criminal prosecutions will be used potentially as a political weapon," Cruz said, according to NBC.
Even if an indictment lands in the upcoming weeks, Republicans say they won't be the ones who determine Menendez's political future as the ranking member of a committee. While true by Senate procedure, it marks the goodwill Menendez has been able to establish with his colleagues on the other side of the aisle.
"There are no formal charges yet, and when there are, that is really a decision for the Democrat caucus to deal with," said Sen. Roy Blunt, vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. "I don't know if there is much benefit in trying to speculate on anything until those two things have happened."
And Democratic leadership isn't backing down from their full-throated support of its top foreign policy maker, even if he has been an occasional nuisance for the Obama administration.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's been an outstanding senator," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Tuesday.
For now, Capitol Hill is in a holding pattern, and Menendez can stay right where Republicans value him—a thorn in the White House's side.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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