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WGDB: Menendez Not Staying Quiet at Foreign Relations

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s much-maligned Twitter-esque program in Cuba had a quick defender on Capitol Hill — Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez.

“For more than 50 years, the U.S. has had an unwavering commitment to promote freedom of information in the world,” the New Jersey Democrat said at a hearing earlier this month. “I do not believe that USAID’s actions . . . are, in any way, a ‘cockamamie idea.’ ”

It was a direct rebuke of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee who called the Twitter-like program, known as ZunZuneo, “cockamamie” and “dumb, dumb, dumb.” Leahy suggested the alleged secrecy of the program — USAID denies that it was covert — could potentially endanger other agency workers around the world. Menendez pushed instead for a review of efforts to reach people in other authoritarian regimes.

He has been anything but a shrinking violet since taking over the Foreign Relations gavel from John Kerry last year.

The son of Cuban immigrants, the Senate Democrats’ point man on foreign policy talks often of the democratic principles he gleaned from his parents.

“I have tried to be an activist, independent, bipartisan chairman, guided by the values I learned from my mother,” he said in a speech at the George Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum last month.

But his advocacy can only go so far because Congress hasn’t enacted a foreign aid authorization since 1985 — a victim, in part, of lawmakers’ reluctance to vote for such a bill and of its potential to attract poison-pill amendments.

That has resulted in the committee ceding influence over the nation’s foreign policy to Leahy’s appropriations subcommittee, which funds programs every year.

As a result, “the committee has been in eclipse,” said Charles Stevenson, who studies congressional power over national security at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

But Menendez’s committee staff director said the chairman is “reasserting the priorities of the committee,” including considering the possibility of writing a new foreign policy authorization bill.

“It hasn’t been done in a number of years for a lot of obvious political reasons and challenges,” Danny O’Brien said. “We are looking at it hard.”

Chances that the committee will take on the measure this year are unclear at best, given that there’s are elections in November and the House is under GOP control.

“We don’t want an exercise in futility,” O’Brien stressed, adding that staff level discussions on the Senate side are ongoing.

While a re-authorization would be a high-water mark for Menendez, the chairman has also received praise for his handling of the response to crises in Ukraine and Syria.

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