Key Democrat lawmaker steps up criticism of White House Iran deal as Obama's term nears end

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Before Thursday's vote authorizing new sanctions against Iran, one of the most impassioned speeches on the chamber’s floor against the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal came from a member of President Obama’s own party.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a veteran member of Congress and former chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, bucked the administration, and most of his own Democratic party, by voicing his support for the sanctions measure, as well as reiterating his
long-held opposition to the nuclear deal.

Menendez believes he has paid a price for his dissent, which also has included assailing Obama as weak in his handling of Cuba, Syria and the Russians. The Justice Department last year opened an investigation of allegations that Menendez pushed for policies that would favor a friend and donor.

Menendez has continued to criticize the Obama administration's policies, but with Obama's days in the White House waning, it appears he is turning up the volume.

“There have been attempts to punish me for what I’ve said about the administration’s policy on Iran and Cuba,” Menendez told “I don’t intend to be intimidated by another branch of government.”

Menendez was one of only four Democrats in the Senate who voted with Republicans against the nuclear deal. The New Jersey lawmaker as recently as this summer co-sponsored a bill that would authorize new sanctions on Iran in addition to extending the right to impose the current ones.

There have been attempts to punish me for what I’ve said about the administration’s policy on Iran and Cuba. I don’t intend to be intimidated by another branch of government.

— Senator Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat

The administration has firmly opposed those efforts. It also frowned upon the measure approved by the Senate unanimously on Thursday, saying it was unnecessary, but then said the president would sign it. The bill allows Obama to renew existing sanctions for another decade.

Iranian officials are furious over the latest sanctions vote, as well as other measures based on a lack of trust about its nuclear intentions and role in supporting terrorism.

“Whether it be this, or Cuba, my party doesn’t care for my [foreign policy] views,” Menendez said. “This is about the fervent belief it’s in the national interest and security of the United States to have more sanctions.”

Last year, Menendez gained a defender in Sen. Ted Cruz, a conservative Republican who said Menendez’s foreign policy stances had sparked Obama administration retaliation against him.

"The coincidence is troubling," Cruz said, "that that very week [when Menendez opposed the Iran deal] is when the Justice Department announces they're moving forward with criminal prosecutions. It raises a suggestion to other Democrats that if you dare part from the Obama White House, a criminal prosecution can be used potentially for political retribution."

Senators are the typically the ones who take on presidents of their own party, said Ross Baker, a visiting professor of political science at Rutgers University.

“Their profile is higher, particularly people who are seasoned, been around for a while, they can pull it off,” Baker said.

Menendez said he won't hesitate to take on incoming president Donald Trump.

“I have always been willing and able to find ways to work with both Democratic and Republican administrations for the betterment of our nation,” said Menendez, who has never met Trump. “That will continue to be the case with our next president.”