Sen. Bob Menendez is known as a Democrat who is loyal to his party – he vehemently defends colleagues, the party’s policy positions, and he is one of the most prolific fundraisers in Congress.
And that is why when – during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday on Iran – Menendez voiced pointed criticism of President Barack Obama’s opposition to his bill calling for tougher sanctions, it made headlines.
Menendez, who is the ranking Democrat on the committee, said: “The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran. And it feeds to the Iranian narrative of victimization, when they are the ones with the original sin.”
Obama has vowed to veto legislation such as the one co-sponsored by Menendez and Republican Senator Mark Kirk, of Illinois, that calls for sweeping sanctions against Iran if negotiations over its nuclear program end up failing.
“[It’s an] illicit nuclear weapons program going back over the course of 20 years that they are unwilling to come clean on,” Menendez said. “So I don’t know why we feel compelled to make their case when, in fact … they get to cheat in a series of ways and we get to worry about their perceptions.”
Jaws dropped – figuratively, and perhaps literally – after Menendez made his comments.
Several conservative news outlets simply used his “talking points” quote as their headline.
Foreign Policy writer John Hudson tweeted: “Wow. Menendez, a Dem, says Obama administration is using ‘talking points straight out of Tehran.’ Remark creates visible outburst in crowd.”
In fact, Menendez often has disagreed – very publicly and very pointedly – with President Obama over foreign policy, particularly when he perceives a weak U.S. response to a rogue state leader.
Two years ago, Time Magazine noted, “As the U.S. enters a critical stage in relations with Iran, Menendez represents the pro-Israel wing of the Democratic Party — thanks in part to the large Jewish population in New Jersey — that has been pushing the President to get tougher on Iran.”
Mike Singh, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said to the publication about Menendez: “He certainly has been a strong voice on Iran sanctions and has been instrumental in overcoming Administration hesitation on the most recent sanctions bill.”
In December, Menendez took aim at Obama for deciding – without consulting him, a Cuban-American who has been a leading voice in Congress on U.S. policy toward Cuba – to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, including establishing an embassy and easing travel and trade.
Menendez, who was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until the GOP became the majority party in the chamber earlier this month, described Obama’s new Cuba policy this way: "I think it stinks."
"I think it's wrong. I am deeply disappointed in the president."
Echoing an objection he often has made regarding U.S. responses to political strongmen, Menendez said the administration had conceded too much to Cuban President Raul Castro, who had made no commitment to making democratic reforms.
"What it really is, is about the 10 million people in Cuba who got a bad deal," he said to CNN earlier this month, "because what we did here is, we exchanged one innocent American for three convicted Cuban spies, including one that was convicted for conspiracy to commit murder against U.S. citizens, who were murdered by the Castro regime, and, secondly, we got nothing in terms of democracy and human rights. We got nothing about political freedoms."
Regarding Syria, Menendez said in 2013 that the Obama administration was inexplicably tempered in responding to the President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on civilians.
"Today's hearing left me bewildered that this government does not have a strategy as to Syria," Menendez said in an interview with CNN.
"Syria is becoming the Somalia of the Middle East, and attracting an all-star cast of violent extremists.”
Menendez also has taken the administration to task for not reacting more forcefully against Venezuela’s oppressive government, and Russia’s aggressive moves in the Ukraine.
In an interview in November with the The Record, a New Jersey daily newspaper, Menendez said that his role as the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee required that he fight for the best approach to overseas crisis or conflicts.
“I am the center of gravity on the committee,” Menendez said. “I’m holding the center where, at least in foreign policy, we have a bipartisan effort.”
He conceded that there were times when he had no choice but to disagree, publicly, with the president.
The Record article noted: “Sometimes, Menendez said, his goal has been to show Obama there would be bipartisan support for something the president was thinking of doing. But there have been other times when Menendez and his Senate colleagues thought they knew better, and wanted to remind the president they were a co-equal branch of government.”
The senator said to The Record: “I’m helping the administration and I am actually sometimes ahead of where they are. But they seem to, most of the time, get to where I am. And I will immodestly say that I’ve been proven right more times than wrong.”