Pennsylvania Avenue’s Cold War

How a New Jersey Democrat became the White House's biggest foreign-policy foe.

Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla

Secretary of State John Kerry has spent the last week hopscotching through Europe and the Mideast, seeking to build support for Syria peace talks, but he has also had to carve time out of his packed schedule to revisit an issue he thought was already settled, one reopened by a man who under ordinary circumstances ought to be a reliable ally.

Sen. Bob Menendez, a fellow Democrat and Kerry’s successor as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been pushing a controversial Iran sanctions bill that Barack Obama’s administration sees as an existential threat to the current nuclear agreement with Tehran, which was first hammered out by Kerry in November. Kerry, according to a senior U.S. State Department official, has been phoning back to Washington to tell former Senate colleagues on the panel that their current co-worker might well torpedo a once-in-a-generation opportunity to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Kerry’s not alone. This month, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns placed a quiet phone call to Menendez and urged him to change his mind about the sanctions bill. Meanwhile, members of the White House staff are all but openly blasting Menendez for his sanctions push, claiming that backers of the bill are nothing but warmongers. "If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be upfront with the American public and say so," White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said last week.

The lobbying campaign against Menendez’s bill — which would impose expansive new sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail — highlights his surprising emergence as one of the White House’s leading congressional adversaries. It also reflects the growing amount of bad blood between the administration and one of the Senate’s most powerful Democrats. Menendez has long believed that the White House was too quick to oppose his earlier efforts to sanction Iran — including a measure that cut Iran’s Central Bank off from the global financial system — and too quick to then claim credit when those provisions hammered the Iranian economy and helped bring Tehran to the negotiating table. Menendez, according to those familiar with his thinking, also opposed earlier White House efforts to improve U.S. ties with Cuba.

Committee chairmen like Menendez normally walk in lock step with presidents from their own party. Menendez, by contrast, has publicly challenged the White House’s handling of the current nuclear talks with Iran, the administration’s top foreign-policy priority, and has given no indication that he’s willing to back down on the sanctions fight. That has put him squarely in the White House’s cross-hairs and has put other Democratic lawmakers into the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to side with the White House or with one of their own.

Iran isn’t the only issue on which Menendez has broken ranks with the White House. The administration has spent months pressing Capitol Hill to approve a large weapons sale to Iraq, but Menendez has personally stopped the deal from going through even as the country’s al Qaeda affiliate has grown strong enough to conquer the key city of Fallujah. Menendez also helped kill a secret administration effort to cut a deal with the Cuban government that would have softened the decades-old U.S. sanctions on Havana in exchange for the release of American contractor Alan Gross.

Nothing, though, has prompted the administration’s ire like Menendez’s support for the new sanctions bill. In a recent conversation, a senior administration official rolled his eyes when asked about Menendez. "I have no idea why he thinks that he’s better qualified to steer these negotiations than the president and the secretary of state," the official said.

Menendez’s office declined to make him available for an interview, and his spokesman, Adam Sharon, refused to comment. The lawmaker’s many allies on Capitol Hill, however, say that the senator is simply trying to put Iran on notice that it will be harshly punished if the talks fail and is thereby giving Tehran more incentive to cut a deal.

"Bob’s one of the most well-respected foreign-policy voices in the Democratic caucus, someone who can reach across the aisle and forge bipartisan coalitions," said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the co-sponsor of the new sanctions bill as well as the earlier measure targeting the Iranian Central Bank. "The White House’s decision to attack him says more about the White House than Bob Menendez."

Kirk added that it was "disingenuous" for the administration to argue that tough U.S. sanctions deserved sole credit for bringing Iran to the table.

"In 2011, they told us the Menendez-Kirk amendment would fracture the international sanctions coalition and limit America’s diplomatic options," he said. "The Senate passed it 100-0, and now they take credit for the amendment’s success."

Other lawmakers note that Menendez has worked closely with the White House on other issues, including the administration’s putative — and ultimately abandoned — effort to win congressional support for a military strike against Syria after Damascus killed hundreds of its own people with chemical weapons.

"He’s been right with the White House on a number of decisions on Syria, which was a close vote in the committee," said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). "He probably did as good of a job if not better articulating the White House’s position."

Still, many from Menendez’s own party argue that he is wrong to break so completely, and so publicly, with the White House over its Iran policy.

"It’s kind of remarkable, as a Democrat, to see this kind of behavior," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), addressing Menendez’s revolt with the White House. "It’s not team ball."

Menendez is in some ways following in the path by former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who routinely broke with his own Democratic Party due to his hawkish foreign-policy views, support for the Iraq war, and somewhat conservative positions on social issues like the level of violence in TV and movies. In an interview, Lieberman praised Menendez for being willing to fight for his beliefs but acknowledged that battling fellow Democrats can take a toll.

"It’s not fun," he said. "You’re impacting relationships that are otherwise important to you."

Menendez’s current battles with the White House are the latest chapter in his unusually colorful path to power. He spent more than a decade on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs before being appointed to the Senate in 2006 by then-Sen. Jon Corzine, who resigned after being elected governor of New Jersey. Menendez cruised to re-election in 2012 and took over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Kerry stepped down in 2013 to become secretary of state.

His appointment was controversial from the start because of his connections to a South Florida ophthalmologist and prominent campaign donor, Salomen Melgen. In January 2013, days before Menendez was elected chairman, FBI agents stormed Melgen’s medical offices in an incident that raised allegations over free flights Menendez took on Melgen’s private jet and political favors paid to Melgen’s business interests in the Dominican Republic. Ensuing reports revealed that Melgen donated more than $700,000 to Menendez’s re-election campaign in 2012 and to other Senate Democrats — as well as the fact that Menendez fought to secure a lucrative port security contract for a firm partially owned by Melgen.

Menendez eventually acknowledged that the flights were not properly disclosed and cut Melgen a check for $58,500. At the same time, he defended his relationship with the powerful Democratic donor. "No one has bought me," he said in February 2013. "No one, ever. In the 20 years I’ve been in Congress, never has it been suggested that that could even be possible."

In December, the Miami Herald reported that a Miami grand jury issued no charges against Menendez, though the probe still continues. In 2013, the ranking member of the Senate Ethics Committee revealed that a separate investigation had been launched into whether Menendez inappropriately accepted gifts from Melgen. A spokesman with the committee declined to comment on the status of the investigation.

Kerry and his predecessor, then-Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, were prominent figures on the world stage who were known for their close ties to key leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Menendez has kept a far lower profile, though he has won praise from pro-Israel groups for his staunch support for the Jewish state and from Cuban-American organizations that share his unstinting opposition to the Castro regime.

Menendez’s hard-line positions on the Cuban issue could leave him vulnerable to White House retaliation. The White House has long signaled a willingness to pursue better ties with the Castro government by relaxing some of the decades-old sanctions against the island nation, making it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel home, and cutting back on U.S.-funded pro-democracy programs in the country.

Menendez opposes each of those initiatives and has managed to prevent several of them from being put into practice. For instance, as part of the talks regarding Gross, the American contractor being held in Cuba since 2009, the U.S. Agency for International Development agreed to spend only $15 million of the $20 million that had been budgeted for pro-democracy programming in Cuba in 2010 and just $10 million of the money in 2011. When Menendez found out, he managed to force the White House to reverse course and spend all of the allotted money.

This time around, the administration could decide to punish Menendez for his support of the Iran sanctions bill by cutting those programs, promoting cultural exchanges with Cuba, further easing travel restrictions, or taking other concrete steps to build a stronger relationship with Havana.

"That’s Menendez’s soft underbelly," said one senior congressional aide. "Menendez has become the principal Democratic thorn in the administration’s side. If I’m president and I want to stick it to Menendez, I would take it out on his Cuba policy."

In the meantime, Menendez’s standoff with the White House over the Iran bill is leading to bitter divisions within his own party.

On Tuesday, Jan. 14, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor urging her colleagues to oppose the Menendez bill. If the legislation passes, she warned, "diplomatic negotiations will collapse, and there will be no final agreement."

"The authors of additional sanctions in this body and Iranian hard-liners in the other body would actually combine to blow up the diplomatic effort of six major powers," she said.

It’s a position not shared by her Democratic colleague from Maryland, Sen. Ben Cardin. "The bill we have brought forward is clearly a bill that encourages a diplomatic solution," he told Foreign Policy. "In reality, we’re strengthening the administration’s hand."

In an interview, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Menendez and the White House had "a legitimate disagreement about whether a good-cop, bad-cop routine here is truly helpful."

"It isn’t personal," he said.

Still, Murphy said the dispute, one way or another, would have to be resolved soon.

"This is the moment when the rubber hits the road," he said.