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.
“I believe he has done a good job,” said former Sen. Richard G. Lugar, who served on the Foreign Relations Committee for 36 years, with two stints as chairman. He was ranking member from 2007 until he left Congress in 2013, after losing a GOP primary to a tea party candidate.
Aides said Menendez’s approach to the chairmanship focuses on four areas: national security, economic statecraft (an effort to harness global economic forces to advance U.S. foreign policy), diplomacy, and democracy and human rights.
However, Menendez has also had his controversies. Earlier this month Salomon Melgen, a Menendez campaign donor, was identified as Medicare’s highest reimbursed doctor in the country, making more than $21 million in 2012. Their relationship came under scrutiny last year .
Lugar said both Menendez and ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who has also been “excellent,” appear to have a good working relationship — an important ingredient to advancing the committee’s interests.
Lugar said the committee has passed only a few measures of import, but he believes that is more the result of a breakdown in the Senate.
In the national security area, the committee passed a resolution last May to empower the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition and helped establish a strategy to end the conflict. That was followed in September by a measure that would have provided the administration with authorization for use of military force in Syria, before Syria agreed to a deal to give up their chemical weapons stockpile.
On Ukraine, the panel passed a bill that provided $1 billion in loan guarantees and would have authorized an overhaul of the International Monetary Fund. Congress passed the measure earlier this month, after the IMF provision was dropped to ensure its passage in the House.
Passage of the measures was significant, given that the committee has a diverse make up including GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is typically hawkish in foreign affairs; tea party conservatives, who tend to be more isolationist; and liberal Democrats.
Stevenson cited Menendez's handling of Iran sanctions as an example of how he has eased into the chairmanship. “I think he’s doing a very credible job,” Stevenson said. “He hasn’t changed his position, but I think he has adapted some of his activities to the broader role as chairman.”
Menendez became a thorn in the side of the administration last year, when he co-authored a bill imposing new sanctions on Iran if the nation falters in living up to its promises. The bill came after a landmark interim deal reached in November with the Iranians that was sharply criticized by Israeli leaders. Negotiators have set July 20 as the deadline for a long-term deal.
The bill ultimately went into the Senate freezer after the White House lobbied hard against it and warned it could derail the talks. Menendez has remained vocal on his rationale for it, but hasn't demanded a vote.
Menendez also has been traveling the world in an effort to help U.S. companies compete abroad, as well as to build and nurture diplomatic relationships.
Lugar said there is a significant part of the chairman’s job — aside from holding hearings, clearing treaties and processing nominations — that happens under the radar.
“It’s an opportunity not only to foster legislation, but to foster better understanding,” Lugar said. “It makes a big difference in the world.”