Why Republicans are giving Menendez a pass

Why Republicans are giving Menendez a pass

Senate Republicans aren’t outright defending indicted Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) as he faces bribery and corruption charges. But they’re not joining the dozen-plus Democratic senators who have called on him to resign.

“That’s an issue for the Democrats to deal with,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Wednesday when asked whether or not Menendez should resign.

Between the lines, there are several reasons for this. Let’s start with the biggest one: The enemy you know is — generally — better than the one you don’t. The Senate GOP knows that, and its members largely see Menendez as a moderate Democrat who led the Foreign Affairs Committee in a cooperative manner.

In addition to his subject-matter expertise, Republicans appreciate that he’s a steadfast supporter of Israel (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has come to Menendez’s defense).

“He certainly knows the issues well, and he’s a hawk,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who’s gone further than McConnell and urged Menendez to spurn calls to resign. “I mean, that’s the thing for Republicans, having a Democrat who is so hawkish as a chairman is kind of an encouragement.”

Menendez has stepped down as chair of the Foreign Relations panel; Senate Democrats’ bylaws required him to do so. But if he was acquitted and still around, he could, in theory, take the post back.

Then there’s electoral politics: If Menendez did step aside, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) would be free to appoint a successor. With progressives like Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) already eyeing the seat, there’s a chance a newer New Jersey Democrat could be less of an ally to the Senate middle.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has vocally criticized Democrats for calling on Menendez to resign. He suggested that the reason Senate Democrats are calling on Menendez to resign — which they didn’t do in 2015, when Menendez got hit with another indictment — is because the politics are more convenient now.

“Democrats stood firm by Bob Menendez eight years ago. Difference is they’ve got New Jersey legislative elections that are at risk. They’ve got a lot of Democratic senators up for reelection who are at risk. And they now have a Democratic governor of New Jersey to appoint Bob Menendez’s replacement, as opposed to Chris Christie eight years ago,” Cotton told POLITICO.

His line of thinking alludes to another reality for the Senate GOP: If Menendez were to run again and somehow clinched the nomination, he could help Senate Republicans try to put blue New Jersey in play next year.

Then there’s the comparison risk: Republicans have their own indicted colleagues to be concerned about as they weigh their approach to Menendez. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) is facing significant fraud charges, yet the majority of Republicans have not called on him to resign. Former President Donald Trump, the GOP’s presidential frontrunner, has been indicted four times, though Republicans have continued to stand behind him.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, for one, this week seemed to flip-flop on whether Menendez should resign after a reporter mentioned Santos. While McCarthy over the weekend sounded ready to say Menendez should step down, he later clarified that both Santos and Menendez should have their days in court first. (The obvious subtext: McCarthy needs Santos in office, casting his vote to support the slim GOP majority.)

What to watch: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer Wednesday declined to call on Menendez to resign. More than half of Senate Democrats say he should. Menendez will be addressing the Senate Democratic caucus Thursday, however, and Schumer said “we’ll see what happens after that.”

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