Sen. Mark S. Kirk became the latest Republican to suggest reports of corruption charges against Sen. Robert Menendez are the result of "politically motivated" leaks by the Justice Department.
Echoing speculation from Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Kirk told reporters Monday night that timing of the news about a pending indictment for the New Jersey Democrat could be related to efforts by Menendez to rally support within his party for an Iran sanctions bill .
"Bob Menendez has been an excellent partner for me on the Iran stuff, and I'm worried now by leaking stuff [from] Justice it's politically motivated to silence Bob for his work on Iran, which he should be praised for," said Kirk. The pair introduced the Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2015, a measure that would impose sanctions on Iran only if the nation fails to reach an agreement by deadline.
Asked if he suspected political motivation, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain said, "I'd love to assume it, but I really don't know it. I honestly don't know enough, I just can't comment on it."
The Arizona Republican said he admires and respects Menendez for the way he conducted his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. McCain said the leak reminded him of the scandal that forced decorated Gen. David Petraeus to resign as head of the CIA.
"Don't people have the right to be protected from those kinds of leaks which are very damaging to their reputation?" McCain asked. "Unfortunately, it's the way this town works, and I'm very regretful."
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., also held his fire when asked about Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee. Should Menendez be able to remain as the ranking member if he is indicted? "I think he certainly plans to," Corker said.
"I had a very good conversation with him today just about issues — this is not an issue that we talked about and look, he's been a very good partner on Foreign Relations. I don't have anything other than some leak," Corker said. "I can't even comment on that."
The legislative business under discussion centers on a potential nuclear deal with Iran, and a recent schedule change that could give Corker, Menendez and others backers more time to rally support for their approach within the Senate.
"We've got a bipartisan effort that's underway that has a chance of being successful, and while I understand all kinds of people want to weigh in on this issue and I appreciate that, I just felt like as chairman of the committee ... working with the ranking member and others to get to a place where we had 67 votes, it was probably not something that was going to be as helpful in that effort for me to be involved in it, but I understand others want to weigh in, in all kinds of ways," Corker said.
"Hopefully as people calm down over the language itself and then think about it, they will realize that the approach that Menendez and myself and so many others have laid out is a sound approach," he added.
Corker did not sign onto the letter Sen. Tom Cotton sent to the leadership of Iran, but he had advance notice from the Arkansas Republican that it was coming.
"The role I'm trying to play is to get to ... an outcome, and you know it wasn't appropriate for me to sign onto the letter," Corker said, explaining that he wants to lead a bipartisan effort. "He understands that my role in this is a little different and unique and respected that."
Kirk did sign on, and said he has been telling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that it is "very likely" an agreement would not be made by the March 24 deadline.
"If the agreement is not made, then the case for Menendez-Kirk is made," Kirk said. "The one thing that Iranians don't have, they don't have enough time to finish their atomic weapons and they desperately need more time." Kirk said the bill would move, and that he has been working "very carefully" with McConnell.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats have criticized Cotton’s effort, especially the tone of the letter.
But McCain called such complaints "overreaction by a hysterical White House who is worried about the fact that the Congress may play its constitutional role of advise and consent." He rejected suggestions the 46 Republicans who signed onto the letter had overstepped their bounds.
"I have communicated thousands of times with leaders of foreign countries in my responsibilities here in the United States Senate and I will continue to exercise my authority," McCain said. "I will not rely on the White House or the State Department to do my communicating for me."
Related: Democrats Blast Cotton, GOP Over Open Letter to Iran Menendez: ‘I’m Not Going Anywhere’ Senate Schedule Changed After Iran Vote Delay 7 Democrats Said to Back New Iran Sanctions Bill 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.