Republicans may not realistically smell another Senate seat about to become available, but they’re moving quickly on the very real scent of political blood. And their nose for scandal has them salivating at more than the fate of Sen. Robert Menendez, who may be only weeks from facing federal corruption charges.
Some in the GOP also sniff something fishy in the way the Obama administration’s Justice Department leaked word of the pending prosecution last week, just as New Jersey’s senior senator was ratcheting up his standing as the most prominent Democratic critic of the president’s foreign policy. Other Republicans insinuate there is news that really stinks, suggesting Minority Leader Harry Reid may have not only abetted but also may have benefited from some of Menendez’s questionable behavior — and he isn’t signaling any interest in separating his colleague from the Senate power structure.
All the different angles the GOP is pursuing suggest that, once the expected indictment is handed down, Menendez may have been prescient in more ways than one when he declared at the end of last week: “I’m not going anywhere.”
He went before the cameras on March 6, after CNN reported Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had approved prosecutors’ request to file charges culminating a two-year investigation into whether Menendez accepted lavish gifts and generous campaign contributions from Florida eye surgeon Salomon Melgen in exchange for promoting the doctor’s business interests with federal officials.
Menendez, one of the highest-ranking Latinos in Congress, is not scheduled to seek a third full term until 2018. And, in recent days, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has said nothing about the senator’s prospects for survival back home — working instead to tie the Menendez travails to Reid. The Democratic leader is planning on seeking a sixth term in Nevada, and GOP campaign operatives view him as one of the few vulnerable senators next year's elections.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also is working to highlight the connection. On CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday, the Kentucky Republican noted it would be up to Reid “to make that call” and convince Menendez to step aside as ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee upon indictment. That's because Democratic Caucus rules don’t require members in senior posts to give them up while charged with a felony, and no Democratic senator has been indicted in the decade since Reid became floor leader.
GOP senators have such a rule, and the most recent Republican indicted, the late Ted Stevens of Alaska in 2008, gave up top seats on Commerce and an Appropriations subcommittee. The next year, Nevada’s John Ensign resigned as GOP Policy Committee chairman at the outset of a scandal in which he sought to cover up his affair with a campaign aide, though he was never charged with a crime.
(The situation is parallel on the House side. GOP rules require people in leadership jobs to step aside after indictment, which is why Texan Tom DeLay stood down as majority leader in 2006. But the Democrats rely on public sentiment and internal pressure, which was what got Rep. Charles B. Rangel to resign as Ways and Means chairman in 2010, months before his tax evasion case came to a head.)
The NRSC, for its part, is working to draw attention to Reid’s connections to both Menendez and his ophthalmologist friend.
The newest nexus was revealed in court papers obtained by the New Jersey Law Journal two weeks ago — when they were briefly posted online, apparently by mistake — in a tangential aspect of the Menendez case, a dispute over whether his Senate staffers may be compelled to testify before a federal grand jury.
In those filings, Justice lawyers detail how Reid accompanied Menendez to a meeting in August 2012 with Kathleen Sebelius, then the secretary of Health and Human Services, to advocate for Melgen’s position in a multimillion-dollar fight with Medicare over reimbursements for one of his treatments. It would be highly unusual, but not necessarily improper, for a top Senate leader to be part of a meeting with a Cabinet secretary about such a bureaucratic billing dispute — especially one not involving any of his own constituents.
It is also the case, however, that Melgen was a generous booster of Democratic Senate campaign efforts that year, when Menendez was standing for re-election. Two months before the Sebelius meeting, the doctor’s company, then known as Vitreo Retinal Consultants, donated $400,000 to Senate Majority PAC, which was run by former Reid staffers. Two months after the meeting, the firm delivered another $300,000 to the same super PAC.
At a minimum, the Senate GOP campaign arm says, Reid should return the $10,000 in campaign donations he’s received directly from Menendez.
Two GOP senators who are potential presidential candidates, while in Iowa for a farm policy event over the weekend, pursued a whole different line of attack — focused not on Reid but on the White House. Both Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina suggested the leak was an effort to embarrass or silence Menendez in retribution for his criticisms of Obama policies on Cuba, Russia and most recently Iran. Last week, Menendez vigorously doubted the wisdom of striking an accord with Tehran to halt its nuclear program.
“It raises a suggestion to other Democrats that, if you dare part from the Obama White House, criminal prosecutions will be used potentially as a political weapon,” Cruz said. “This investigation has been going on for over a year, and yet the very week they announce a pending indictment comes within hours after Sen. Menendez showing courage to speak out against President Obama's dangerous foreign policy.”
Graham made essentially the same point, noting the leak came right after Menendez offered his critique. "Like every other American, he's innocent until proven otherwise,” Graham said, “but this whole behavior around the Obama administration regarding the law is very disturbing."
The Menendez case burst into view more than two years ago, with a sensational report that Melgen flew the senator to the Dominican Republic for sex parties with underage prostitutes. The hooker angle has been widely discredited, and Menendez has come up with $70,000 from his own pocket to pay for his trips on the doctor’s private jets.
The rest of the story clearly isn’t going away, and surely Reid knows that as well as Menendez himself.
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