Menendez’s Views on Cuba and Iran Show Rifts With Obama
Menendez’s Views on Cuba and Iran Show Rifts With Obama
By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and ASHLEY PARKER FEB. 5, 2015
WASHINGTON — When Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey said last week
that he would give President Obama two months before defying a veto
threat and voting for new sanctions on Iran, he made it clear that the
delay was not out of loyalty to his fellow Democrat in the Oval Office.
“I don’t get calls from the White House,” Mr. Menendez said when asked
whether the president or his team had lobbied him for the reprieve. It
was a frank acknowledgment of the rifts that exist between Mr. Obama and
Mr. Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee. The divisions have burst into public view in recent weeks as
Mr. Menendez, a second-term senator, has taken on Mr. Obama over Cuba
Mr. Obama’s advisers say they speak with Mr. Menendez regularly, and the
senator described his relationship with the White House as excellent.
But deep policy and political divisions remain between Mr. Obama and the
senator, one of the Democrats best positioned to defend the
administration’s foreign policy in Congress.
During a Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, Mr. Menendez
sharply questioned State Department officials about Mr. Obama’s move to
open diplomatic relations with Cuba, calling it “a bad deal” that
“compromised bedrock principles for virtually no concessions.” In
December, Mr. Menendez, a son of Cuban immigrants who has made
opposition to the Castro leadership a centerpiece of his political life,
said Mr. Obama’s decision had “vindicated the brutal behavior of the
He has also battled with Mr. Obama over a bill to impose new sanctions
on Iran, which the president argues would undermine talks to prevent
Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Mr. Menendez is a co-sponsor of
And during Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address last month, Mr.
Menendez sat grim-faced as other Democrats cheered the president’s
promise to veto any effort to roll back his domestic agenda. Days later,
Mr. Menendez told Obama administration officials that they sounded as if
they were peddling “talking points that come straight out of Tehran” in
arguing against his sanctions bill.
All the while, Mr. Menendez has agitated for a more aggressive response
to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, calling for more sanctions on Moscow
and military assistance to Kiev.
Katie Beirne Fallon, Mr. Obama’s chief liaison to Congress, said, “There
are a few high-profile things where we don’t agree, but on 98 percent of
the issues, we work very closely and well.” Mr. Menendez, she added, was
a “fierce defender” of the president’s domestic agenda.
The disputes on foreign policy pose difficulties for Mr. Obama that are
substantial and symbolic, said former Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of
“It makes the president’s challenge of communicating his position to the
American people more difficult when prominent members in his own camp
are taking a different point of view,” Mr. Bayh said.
Republican senators and aides say it has been politically valuable to
have Mr. Menendez’s public support, often in opposition to the White House.
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“Anytime a senator from the other party will say something like that, it
is helpful,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.
Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Foreign
Relations Committee, called Mr. Menendez “a great partner.”
Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council aide in the Obama
administration, said that could be a problem, given that Senator John
McCain, Republican of Arizona, has vowed to use his power as chairman of
the Armed Services Committee to challenge Mr. Obama on virtually every
foreign policy issue.
“To have the top Democrat at Senate Foreign Relations doing similar
things is a tough political situation to be in, that’s for sure,” Mr.
Vietor said. “The good news is that I think Year 6 Barack Obama cares as
little about politics as he possibly can, especially when it comes to
foreign policy decision-making.”
There has never been much personal or political rapport between Mr.
Obama, 53, and Mr. Menendez, 61.
Mr. Menendez endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic
presidential race over Mr. Obama, who had campaigned for him in New Jersey.
In 2010, Mr. Menendez and the president clashed after Martha Coakley,
the Democratic candidate in a special election for Senator Edward M.
Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, lost a lopsided election to Scott
Brown. A White House official was quoted anonymously blaming the loss on
Mr. Menendez, then chairman of the party’s Senate campaign arm.
Mr. Menendez has also battled with the Justice Department over a public
corruption investigation that he said was instigated by Cuban spies to
At the same time, aides to Mr. Menendez say that he has been a reliable
partner to the president, moving scores of his nominees through the
Foreign Relations Committee and engineering bipartisan agreements on
tricky international issues, like the authorization of the use of force
in Syria in 2013.
“He is a center of gravity, the only guy who can bridge the left and the
right and get something forward,” Adam Sharon, Mr. Menendez’s
communications director, said of the senator. “It’s not confrontational
or adversarial or being a thorn in the president’s side, but him being a
leader, bridging the divides so that something can get done.”
But Mr. Menendez has taken umbrage at recent treatment by the president.
The senator, who was invited by Mr. Obama to travel with him on Air
Force One during a visit to Lakehurst, N.J., two days before the shift
in Cuba policy was announced, has since suggested that he is angry to
have been left out of the talks that preceded it. “To be notified when
it’s going to happen is not consultation,” he said last week.
Mr. Menendez also said he took “personal offense” at the president’s
suggestion during a closed-door exchange last month that supporters of
the Iran sanctions bill were motivated by politics. Some of the people
there interpreted the comment as a thinly veiled reference to pressure
from pro-Israel groups that back a hard line against Iran. (Mr. Menendez
has received $341,170 over the last seven years from such groups, more
than any other Democrat in the Senate, according to Maplight, a
nonpartisan research group.)
His pledge last week, in a letter also signed by nine other Democratic
senators, to delay an Iran sanctions vote until late March gave Mr.
Obama the breathing room he had been seeking on the nuclear talks with
But it also came with a threat: If no deal is struck by then, Mr.
Menendez will side with Republicans to approve the sanctions, bringing
like-minded Democrats with him. “It’s our intention to move forward at
that time,” he said.
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