This month, after DailyExpertNews first reported that US officials visited Caracas to explore talks with oil-rich Venezuela, the diplomatic move drew an angry response from one senator in particular.
“The democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people,” New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez said in a blistering statement, “are worth far more than a few thousand barrels of oil.”
These were harsh words from a member of the president’s own party, who was furious that he had not been consulted sufficiently during the trip. But they were symbolic of the New Jersey Democrat’s extraordinary influence on some of the most politically radioactive topics in US foreign policy, current and former lawmakers, officials and Senate officials say. The government was quick to deny allegations that the trip to Caracas was part of an effort to find new energy supplies to replace Russian oil or to undermine Venezuelan opposition.
“There is no dialogue between us and the regime,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, questioning reporters.
The episode is just the latest example of how Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is able to set the boundaries of what is acceptable on topics from Iran to Venezuela. He is affiliated with pro-Israel groups that understand Washington and the politically active Cuban and Venezuelan-American communities in South Florida. Sometimes in sync with the administration and often at odds with the administration, he should always be treated with a healthy dose of respect and fear.
“He’s someone you need by your side no matter what, so they’re very careful,” said Juan Cruz, who served as senior director for the Western Hemisphere during the Trump administration.
Last year, as a measure of the respect bestowed on Menendez, the White House allowed him to suggest who should and should not be invited to an event with President Biden. The three people Menendez ignored were critics of Cuba’s decades-old economic embargo, which many on the left see as an example of failed right-wing policies.
“Menendez has a very moralistic and inflexible view of using sanctions to punish and ameliorate human rights regardless of the evidence,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, a think tank in London.
At the same time, Menendez has been a crucial government ally on a number of Biden’s priorities, from clearing a path for dozens of Republicans appointees who have tried to block Republicans to advancing a bipartisan consensus on the war in Ukraine. Top officials consult with Menendez several times a month. His relationship with Biden is also a vast improvement from the tension-filled Obama era, allies said.
“Chairman Menendez is a partner in our foreign policy goals and this administration benefits from his counsel,” 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 pressed hard on the perception that he approached the chairmanship differently than he had under previous chairmen of both parties.
The next showdown with Menendez: Iran
Menendez’s influence could soon be tested again if and when the government unveils its long-awaited reset of the Iran nuclear deal.
In recent days, officials have briefed members of the House and Senate committees on the status of the talks in Vienna, and details of the 25-page agreement are beginning to appear in newspaper reports.
One of the final obstacles, according to those who attended the briefings, is Iran’s demand that the US stop designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.
That would mean little in a practical sense, as other sanctions on the group still apply, proponents of a deal say. But the Biden administration would have to spend precious political capital defending the move at a time when it has little to spend.
“I’d like to see what that means in practice,” said New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski, who said he was waiting for the text of an agreement. “But once Iran gets the bomb, our ability to confront their other evil activities will diminish.”
Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said in an interview that he had seen “horrifying” reviews of how close Iran is to producing weapons-grade uranium. Others informed by US intelligence assessments say Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in just two weeks, escalating the risk of Israel taking military action.
“The consequences of a no deal are terrible,” Murphy said. “And there is no other practical path to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon other than diplomacy.”
The main reason the crisis has reached this point, deal proponents say, is Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the original nuclear deal, which has allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium beyond agreed levels.
But the Biden administration also moved too slowly to involve Tehran in entering the office, fearing a Menendez-led backlash on Capitol Hill.
“It didn’t want to lose witch-keepers in Congress,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group.
With a deal close at hand, government officials are hesitant about whether they believe Congress should revise the 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 criticized the current deal under discussion, has indicated he will push for the Senate to have its say. In February, he teamed up with Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, to propose his own diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.
“There is no chance of getting Senator Menendez on board, and the alternative he offers is unworkable for the government,” 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 government is also still exploring its legal options regarding Congressional review of a potential deal, which does not technically qualify as “new”.
If an Iran deal is voted in the Senate, Menendez’s response will be crucial. Republicans will most likely be unanimously opposed to it. The government can still afford to lose a handful of Democrats as it takes just 41 votes to revive a deal. But it may take some arm spinning to gather enough votes to win.
Ben Cardin, the aggressive Maryland senator, has already expressed concern about the Revolutionary Guards’ delisting. Other influential Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, such as Delaware’s Chris Coons, have said little in support of a new deal.
A defeat in the Senate could deal a damaging blow to the president’s signature foreign policy initiatives, supporters of the talks warn. And given Iran’s rapid advance toward weapons-grade uranium production, if diplomacy fails, the president could face the prospect of renewed conflict in the Middle East, on top of a protracted war in Ukraine. .
If there is no deal, Vaez said: “I think this will escalate very quickly and the specter of war will emerge as soon as spring.”
What to read
We interrupt this program
It’s certainly not rare for a senator to question a candidate to interrupt. At one point during the Supreme Court hearings this morning, Senator Thom Tillis, the Republican from North Carolina, did just that, apologizing to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as he did and explaining that he only had four minutes left.
But South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham took it to another level — one that made the interruptions themselves, not the content of the questions and answers, the main feature of his way of asking questions.
During Graham’s exchange with Jackson on Wednesday, she asked several times for permission to speak, with Senator Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, occasionally popping in to help. When Jackson spoke, Graham shook his head scornfully or wobbled in his chair, trying to jump in.
Towards the end of his questioning, our colleague Catie Edmondson described “audible moans and noises of protest from many of the onlookers” as Graham interrupted her. When his time was up, he left the stage.
Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz later tried to overpower Graham and refused to stop talking when his time was up. When he asked Durbin why he didn’t allow his last question, Durbin said, “You wouldn’t allow her to answer anyway.”
And what was Cruz’s excuse for more time? Durbin didn’t stop interrupting him.
Thank you for reading. See you tomorrow.
— Blake & Lea
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