The New Jersey Democrat's decision will deprive Democrats of a hawkish foreign policy voice during a critical time in international relations.
Sen. Robert Menendez will voluntarily step down as ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee following an indictment on federal charges of bribery and conspiracy, according to a source familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to discuss the decision. Menendez's resignation as the number two on the panel will be temporary while he deals with his legal issues, the source said.
Menendez's indictment had put Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in a tough position.
With the indictment of one of his top committee leaders, Reid was left with a difficult choice: Should he remove Menendez as the party's head of the Foreign Relations committee or buck recent precedent and keep the now-indicted New Jersey Democrat in place?
Neither option was good. And Menendez saved the leader a headache by voluntarily stepping aside on Wednesday.
Sen. Barbara Boxer would be next in line to take Menendez's position, but is expected to stay on as ranking member of Environment and Public Works. That would put Sen. Benjamin Cardin in position to take the Foreign Relations post.
Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, had positive words for Menendez after the news of the indictment and Menendez's soon-to-be-diminished committee role broke Wednesday. "While I have no knowledge of the judicial matters at hand, I appreciate his bipartisan work on foreign relations issues and expect he will continue to play a constructive role," Corker said in a statement.
But Menendez's choice leaves Democrats without one of the toughest and most well-respected committee leaders in their caucus, a former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and a ranking member who is able to work with Republicans and has earned their respect through his occasional battles with the White House over foreign policy.
Leaving him in place, however, would have represented a huge break with what has become the norm among House Democrats and Republicans in both chambers, in which indicted members have been temporarily removed from their leadership posts as the courts consider their charges. It would also have opened up Reid to further attacks from Republicans, who have already pointed to his questioning by Justice Department officials in the Menendez case. (There is no indication that Reid was implicated in any of the charges brought against Menendez).
A Reid spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.
John Harwood, a reporter for The New York Times and CNBC, tweeted Wednesday that Reid had said of Menendez: "He called this morning, said he thought he'd be indicted. He's my friend, great senator. Do whatever I can to help."
The timing could not be worse. Menendez's indictment comes less than two weeks before the Foreign Relations Committee is set to take up legislation requiring congressional approval of a still hypothetical White House nuclear deal with Iran, something Menendez has been working on—and threatening the White House over—for months. Next, the committee will turn back to the U.S. fight against ISIS, taking up an Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Menendez has been a key player in negotiating with the administration and Republicans.
"He's been a very strong supporter of the state of Israel. He's been a very—well, let's face it, a pretty strong critic of this administration's lack of strategy. There's an awful lot that I agree with Senator Menendez on on the Foreign Relations Committee," Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican on the panel, said last month.
With a new ranking member, Democrats stand to lose a lot of their clout in both fights under the Republican majority.
Menendez's move could ruffle feathers within the Democratic caucus as well. Before the indictment became official on Wednesday, Menendez's Democratic colleagues on the Foreign Relations panel were largely supportive of their ranking member. "I've not read anything specific that convinces me that there's enough of a problem that there should be any action," Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio told National Journal in March.
Whether the specifics of the charges laid out on Wednesday will weaken that support remains to be seen.
Unlike Republicans, Senate Democrats do not have a specific rule or policy requiring that indicted members be temporarily removed from their committee leadership posts. But precedent provides a clear path. Most recently, the late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens was removed from his ranking member positions upon his indictment for corruption in 2008. And in the House, Rep. Charlie Rangel gave up his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee in 2010 after the ethics committee found that he had violated House rules and a number of colleagues pushed for his ouster.
On the House GOP side, Rep. Tom DeLay stepped down as majority leader when he was indicted in 2005. Some other House Republicans have been pressured by party leadership to give up key posts amid ethics scandals, even before they were actually indicted.
Reid had been careful over the last month not to leave any hints about what he might do if Menendez were indicted, saying that he wouldn't make a decision—or discuss his thinking—until after the facts were laid clear.
Asked in March, shortly after news of the pending indictment broke, about his confidence in Menendez, Reid said: "Senator Menendez has done a stellar job as chair of the committee, and as far as I am concerned, he's been an outstanding senator."