This month, after the New York Times first reported that US officials were visiting Caracas to sound out talks with oil-rich Venezuela, the diplomatic move drew an angry backlash from one senator in particular.
“The democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people,” New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez said in a tart statement, “are worth far more than a few thousand barrels of oil.”
Those were harsh words from a member of the President’s own party, who was furious that he had not been adequately consulted on the trip. But they were symbolic of the New Jersey Democrat’s extraordinary influence on some of the most politically radioactive issues in US foreign policy, current and former lawmakers, officials and Senate assistants say. The government was quick to dismiss allegations that the trip to Caracas was part of an effort to find new sources of energy to replace Russian oil or undermine the Venezuelan opposition.
“There is no dialogue between us and the regime,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said when questioned by reporters.
The episode is just the latest example of Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, being able to define the limits of what is acceptable on issues from Iran to Venezuela. He is associated with Washington-savvy pro-Israel groups and with the politically active Cuban- and Venezuelan-American communities in South Florida. Sometimes in line with management and often at odds with it, he is always to be treated with a healthy dose of respect and fear.
“He’s someone you definitely need on your side, so they’re very careful,” said Juan Cruz, who served as senior director for the western hemisphere during the Trump administration.
Last year, in a measure of deference shown to Menendez, the White House allowed him to propose who should and should not be invited to an event with President Biden. The three people Menendez nixed were critics of the decades-old economic embargo on Cuba, which many on the left see as an example of failed right-wing politics.
“Menendez has a very moralistic and inflexible view of using sanctions to punish and enhance human rights, regardless of evidence,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
At the same time, Menendez has been a key administration ally on a number of Biden’s priorities pave the way for dozens of appointments Republicans have tried to thwart a bipartisan consensus on the Ukraine war. Senior administration officials consult with Menendez several times a month. His relationship with Biden is also a vast improvement over the tense Obama era, allies said.
“Chairman Menendez is a partner in our foreign policy goals, and this administration benefits from his advice,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.
In response to questions about tensions with the Biden administration, Menendez’s office pushed back the perception that he approached the chairman’s job differently than under previous presidents of both parties.
The next showdown with Menendez: Iran
Menendez’s clout could soon be tested again if and when the administration unveils its long-awaited revisit of the Iran nuclear deal.
One of the final obstacles, according to the briefing participants, is Iran’s demand that the US stop labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.
This would mean little in practice as other sanctions still apply to the group, say supporters of a deal. But the Biden administration would have to expend valuable political capital to defend the move at a time when it has little left.
“I want to see what that means in practice,” said New Jersey Democrat Rep. Tom Malinowski, who said he is waiting for the text of an agreement. “But once Iran gets the bomb, our ability to combat their other malicious activities will be diminished.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said in an interview that he had seen “startling” assessments of how close Iran was to producing weapons-grade uranium. Others briefed on US intelligence assessments say Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in just two weeks, raising the risk that Israel could take military action.
“The consequences of a no deal are appalling,” Murphy said. “And there is no other practical way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon than diplomacy.”
The main reason the crisis has reached this point, deal advocates say, is Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the original nuclear deal, which allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium beyond agreed levels.
But the Biden administration was also moving too slowly to engage Tehran when he took office, fearing a Menendez-led backlash on Capitol Hill.
“She didn’t want to lose onlookers in Congress,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran expert with the International Crisis Group.
Now that a deal is in place, government officials are hesitantly wondering if they believe Congress must be allowed to review its terms. Under a bipartisan law passed in 2015, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the government must submit the text of any “new” agreement to congressional oversight.
Menendez, who opposed the original nuclear deal in 2015 and has criticized the deal currently under discussion, has signaled he will insist on the Senate having its say. In February, he teamed up with Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina propose its own diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.
“There is no chance of getting Senator Menendez on board and the alternative he is offering is unworkable for the administration,” Vaez said. “I think it’s a lost cause.”
State Department officials warn that “an agreement is neither imminent nor certain,” as one put it. The administration is also still evaluating its legal options for Congressional review of a potential deal that may not technically qualify as “new.”
If the Senate votes on a deal with Iran, Menendez’s reaction will be crucial. Republicans will most likely be unanimous against it. The government can still afford to lose a handful of Democrats as only 41 votes would be needed to allow a revived agreement. But it might take some arm twists to garner enough votes to win.
Ben Cardin, the hawkish Maryland Senator, has already raised concerns about the delisting of the Revolutionary Guards. Other influential Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, like Delaware’s Chris Coons, have made little support for a new deal.
A defeat in the Senate could deal a major blow to the president on one of his most important foreign policy initiatives, supporters of the talks warn. And given Iran’s rapid progress towards the production of weapons-grade uranium, should diplomacy fail, the president could face the prospect of a new conflict in the Middle East, in addition to a grueling war in Ukraine.
If there is no agreement, Vaez said: “I think it will escalate very quickly and the specter of war will appear as early as spring.”
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We interrupt this program
It’s certainly not uncommon for a senator to interrupt a candidate when questioning him. At one point during this morning’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, North Carolina Republican Senator Thom Tillis did just that, apologizing to Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and declaring that he had only four minutes left.
But Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, took it to another level — one that made the interruptions themselves, not the content of the questions and answers, the key feature of his questioning.
During Graham’s call with Jackson Wednesday, she repeatedly requested permission to speak, with Senator Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat and Judiciary Committee chairman, occasionally stepping in to help. When Jackson spoke, Graham shook his head dismissively or shifted in his chair and tried to jump in.
Towards the end of his questioning, our colleague Catie Edmondson described “audible groans and noises of protest from many onlookers” when Graham interrupted her. When his time was up, he left the podium.
Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz later tried to outdo Graham, refusing to stop talking when his time was up. When he asked Durbin why he wouldn’t allow his last question, Durbin said, “You wouldn’t allow her” to answer.
And what was Cruz’s excuse for more time? Durbin kept interrupting him.
Thank you for reading. we will see you tomorrow
– Blake & Leah
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