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Last spring, the Cuban-American Menendez threatened to vote against a must-pass omnibus spending bill because it relaxed travel and trade restrictions on Cuba. His stance angered Democratic leaders and the White House: Threatening to kill crucial legislation is a no-no in Democratic leadership ranks.
But it wasnt as if Menendezs vote would have been decisive, and at one point, he told Reid he would back off if needed. Several other Democrats were also opposed to the bill, and Republican support was necessary to beat back the attempted GOP-led filibuster.
Menendez also held up two Obama nominees in order to win concessions from the White House on Cuba policy. During the omnibus debate, he along with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) eventually got a letter from the Treasury Department promising to narrowly interpret the language in the bill.
And just last week, Menendez used unusually tough language to describe the presidents March 31 proposal to expand offshore drilling, saying the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico proved that the president made a fundamentally terrible choice.
Though the White House put the drilling plans on hold after the April 20 oil rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana, Menendez took the administration to task.
It just seems to me that the administration made the wrong choice, he said. Its interesting to me that they didnt choose the West Coast to drill on. Theyve chosen the East Coast to drill on.
Of course, Menendez is not the only Democratic leader to criticize the White House.
In the aftermath of the failed Times Square bombing, Schumer has complained about administration cuts to Homeland Security funding for New York City, and he also called on the White House to move the terrorism trial of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed out of New York.
But unlike Schumer, some sources said Menendez has failed to lead on issues and establish himself as a visionary capable of rising in the Democratic ranks.
He hasnt really stepped out on issues, said one Senate Democratic aide. There needs to be a sense of gravitas and discipline.
Still, Menendez has shown his ambition and drive at regular intervals in his career.
I saw his rise in the House to the leadership position, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said. He earned it all the way. The same thing here. And everyone who has seen him work and seen how efficient he is and how willing he is to put in the labor, hes entitled the respect that his efforts have borne.
As a House Member in 2002, Menendez won the chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus the No. 3 spot by just one vote. When then newly elected Gov. Corzine was looking to replace himself in the Senate, Menendez outmaneuvered other Democrats to snag the appointment.
But when Reid asked him to take on the DSCC in the fall of 2008, Menendez initially demurred. Sources said Reid had to ask him three times before he would commit.