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Menendez Changes His Tune

Menendez (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Robert Menendez has gone from administration goat to hero in a week.  

After declaring, at a hearing following the State of the Union, that White House talking points sound like they were coming "straight out of Tehran," the New Jersey Democrat is back on board as Democrats unify against voting on Iran sanctions for about two months. During last week's hearing, Menendez ripped Obama's argument of delaying a sanctions bill — even one that would not take effect unless talks failed — as lacking "common sense."  

Asked today what changed, Menendez said the White House “made a compelling case” for more time.  

Menendez, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, added that he wants to see if Iran is willing to make the tough decisions required.  

“Giving them that time frame allows us to see whether a deal can be struck or not,” Menendez said. “And if it can’t, then having made it very clear to the administration, it’s our intention to move forward at that time.”  

Menendez remains skeptical.  

“I still am of the belief, as I was before, that prospective sanctions only strengthens the hands of the administration and the negotiators,” Menendez said. “But I, and my colleagues, are willing to give, what in essence at this point, is two months to find out the truth and veracity as to whether Iran is really going to make the hard choices to make the type of agreement that we could all support and endorse.”  

His comments come after he announced at a Banking Committee hearing Tuesday, that he and nine other Democrats would not vote on the Senate floor in favor of tightening sanctions on Iran until after March 24.  

Last year he sponsored and pushed for passage of a bill that would have ratcheted up the sanctions regime on Iran if no deal on preventing the country from getting nuclear weapons materialized by June.  

Along with Iran sanctions, Menendez has also been a thorn in the side of the White House on normalizing relations with Cuba and has months pushed the administration to back a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) to take on Islamic State militants.  

As the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has influence on these issues, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.  

Graham compared Menendez’s influence to that of him and John McCain, R-Ariz., when they opposed the Bush administration over enhanced interrogations and other issues.  

“McCain and I were seen as helpful during the Bush years, pushing back against torture and Iraq policy,” Graham said. “His institutional position is even more helpful.”  

Asked to characterize his relationship with the White House, Menendez said “Excellent.”  

Supporters of the New Jersey Democrat's move believe that the delay prevents the measure from becoming a partisan issue. It also keeps the issue from dividing Democrats, and allows members to maintain good relations with the Jewish community.  

Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said that keeping the measure from becoming entangled in partisanship is an important factor and that is how he sees Menendez’s move.  

“One of the things that, as a nation, we need to do for Iran to see is massive support for legislation,” Corker said. “What you don’t want Iran to see is that there is some partisan split over the issue of Iran.”  

Corker has a bill that would require any deal struck with Iran to require Congressional approval. Asked if he intends to offer the measure to the Iran sanctions bill at the Banking markup Thursday, Corker said no.  

“That’s not productive,” Corker said, but he added that he could seek to include his proposal on the Senate floor. “We’re gaming that out,” Corker said.  

Corker also warned that without congressional input the Iran deal could become an albatross around the neck of the next Democratic presidential nominee.  

“It’s hard to argue, it seems to me … against Congress playing some role in approving or disproving the deal,” Corker said.  

Graham agreed that bipartisanship on Iran is paramount, but disagreed with Menendez’s move to delay the sanctions vote.  

“I think maybe he’s…reached the conclusion that putting sanctions on the table is going to (do) more harm than good. I’m not there personally,” Graham said of Menendez. “It’s always helpful to have bipartisan support for any congressional position.”  

Democrats applauded the move.  

“The president has been very compelling … in his public remarks and behind closed doors with Democrats, and I think that’s largely the story of why you see a greater willingness to give … him and his negotiators more time,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn.  

Murphy, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced a resolution Monday that states that the Senate is prepared to enact additional sanctions against Iran if current diplomatic efforts fail, but refuses to prejudge the outcome.  

“This has always been about a difference in tactics, not a difference in policy," Murphy said. “The difference has only been about when we send the signal that we’re moving forward on the new sanctions — now or after the negotiations break up.”  

Murphy said he had lots of conversations about the Iran issue with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.  

“He may have a slightly different way of moving forward, but … he may also end up as a supporter of our resolution,” Murphy said.  

Paul told CQ Roll Call in an interview last week that he was opposed to the idea of advancing new sanctions legislation while the negotiations continue.  

Related: Obama's Big Win on Sanctions The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.