Sen. Bob Menendez is a team player and loyal Democrat, except when he's not.
No one questions the New Jersey Democrat's fidelity to the party and progressive causes, but Menendez has a knack for picking high-profile fights with fellow Democrats, including opposing a recent White House judicial nominee, voting against the deal to raise the debt ceiling last summer and trying to block the administration's evolving policy toward Cuba.
"He is certainly someone who stands up for what he believes in, and sometimes that means standing up against: (A) your own party and (B) what might be popular or convenient," Menendez spokeswoman Tricia Enright said.
She characterized the relationship as a "push and pull" and noted that he served in leadership during the 2010 election cycle as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman and that the party continues to use the fluent Spanish speaker as a bridge to the Hispanic community.
But Menendez has endured a fair amount of flak from his own party and from the media for his positions.
The latest confrontation was over Patty Shwartz, who was nominated by President Barack Obama in October to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Menendez objected to her appointment — the first time a Democrat has blocked one of Obama's judicial nominees. Under Senate Judiciary Committee procedures, the process does not move forward until the nominee gets sign-off from both home-state Senators. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) approved Shwartz's appointment.
Menendez had claimed Shwartz was not qualified to get bumped up. She currently serves as a magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. He had in particular raised concerns about her knowledge of campaign finance law.
But after the New York Times and other media outlets drew attention to his hold, Menendez met with Shwartz on Friday and announced that he had changed his mind and would no longer block the appointment.
"After an in-depth discussion today with Judge Patty Shwartz, I am pleased to announce that I am supporting her nomination to serve on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals," Menendez said in a statement. Shwartz "satisfactorily answered questions covering important legal topics" and "adequately allayed my earlier concerns," he said.
Menendez had been a lone voice against her. The American Bar Association has given her a "unanimously well qualified" rating, and the White House stuck by her.
Critics said Menendez's opposition was payback for the federal probe against him during his last bid for office. Shwartz is romantically linked to Jim Nobile, who led a federal corruption investigation against Menendez.
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