Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez poised to reclaim key committee post, after corruption trial

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Embattled Sen. Bob Menendez purportedly will return as the top Democrat on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after stepping down from the post in 2015 amid corruption charges.

Menendez’s official return as the committee’s “ranking member” is expected to be announced later this week, a congressional source told Fox News. The two-term New Jersey senator and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have yet to return requests for comment.

“By picking the least popular member of the U.S. Senate, who is still under a serious Ethics Committee investigation, Chuck Schumer is showing how out-of-touch he is,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Ahrens told Fox News. “Schumer’s own far-left base opposes the move, and Menendez’s own constituents don’t even want him in the Senate anymore.”

Aside from an ongoing Senate Ethics Committee probe, the legal cloud over Menendez appears to be lifting. But he still faces political headwinds in his bid this year for a third Senate term and in his purported attempt to retain the committee post.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 30, 2018.

 (Reuters)

Menendez’s net approval rating among registered voters has fallen 20 points since the start of 2017 — the biggest decline of any senator up for 2018 reelection, according to a recent Morning Consult poll based on a survey from October through December 2017. 

“New Jersey voters will continue to be reminded of Menendez’s dishonest schemes as the election approaches in November,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Bob Salera recently said. 

If Menendez indeed reclaims his top post on the foreign relations committee, he would push aside Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, who now occupies the ranking-member post.

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party also has expressed concern about Menendez’s return, considering he’s regarded as more moderate than Cardin.

Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, did not support former President Barack Obama’s efforts to improve diplomatic relations with the Cuban government or the Iran nuclear deal, brokered by the Obama administration.

Federal prosecutors decided two weeks ago not to retry Menendez on corruption charges, after their case ended last fall in a hung jury.

Menendez, 64, was charged with trading his political influence for gifts and campaign contributions from Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen. He denied the allegations all along. 

The prosecutors’ decision ended Menendez and Melgen’s 11-week trial and their roughly five-year investigation.

“From the very beginning, I never wavered in my innocence and my belief that justice would prevail,” Menendez said after prosecutors dropped the case. “I am grateful that the Department of Justice has taken the time to re-evaluate its case and come to the appropriate conclusion.”

However, the senator also issued a warning last year to those who were eager to replace him in the Senate. 

“To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” he said after the mistrial. 

Menendez is expected to retain the ranking member staff, presuming he moves back into the post. 

Though the case has weakened Menendez’s poll numbers, he still appears to have the full support of top New Jersey Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy. Further, the state hasn’t elected a Republican senator since the 1970s. Menendez in 2012 won a second term by nearly 20 points.

Prosecutors intended to pursue a retrial for Menendez, but they abandoned the case after the judge threw out the bribery charges related to campaign donations.

Melgen was convicted separately in Florida last spring in a Medicare fraud case that prosecutors said amounted to more than $100 million.

They were first indicted in 2015, accused of operating a scheme in which Menendez used his clout in exchange for trips on Melgen’s private jet to his Dominican resort, a Paris vacation and more.

Prosecutors said Menendez pressured government officials on Melgen’s behalf over a Medicare billing dispute and a contract to provide port screening equipment and also helped obtain U.S. visas for the doctor’s girlfriends.

The senator’s attorneys argued Melgen’s gifts were tokens of friendship, not bribes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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