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Menendez Follows Odd Path to Higher Office

If Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez is looking for a promotion, he certainly isn’t acting like it.

The second-term New Jersey Democrat has long been known to harbor higher leadership ambitions, but colleagues say he isn’t doing anything obvious to position himself for any spots that may open up if Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) loses his uphill battle for re-election this year.

While Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) have appeared in recent months to be shoring up relationships with colleagues for a possible race to succeed Reid, Menendez has taken what some of his colleagues believe is a strange tack if he wants to be considered for positions such as Conference secretary or Whip.

Instead of treading lightly on the legislative front, Menendez has been aggressive, particularly on interests affecting his state. In the process, the normally reliable and loyal Menendez has antagonized the Obama administration and fellow leaders on a few occasions.

“He’s fighting for what he believes in,” said one Senator who asked for anonymity. “He’s not trying to trim his sails for a leadership position.”

Another Democratic Senator said that while Menendez, who was first appointed to his seat by former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) in 2006, is not overtly maneuvering to advance, he is “someone people might turn to in a battle of leadership. … I see him as a sleeper” candidate.

One knowledgeable Democratic operative suggested that Menendez’s style is more often about seizing opportunities, rather than about planning out his ascension.

“He’s not a calculating guy who has his eye on one title or another,” said the operative, who nevertheless indicated that Menendez would certainly take a look at any open leadership races should they become available.

Of course, one factor in Menendez’s
decision-making could be what kind of re-election battle he faces in 2012.

Menendez said last week that all his energies are concentrated on his current leadership job at the DSCC and stemming the losses his party will likely have in the midterm elections.

“I have no vision beyond Nov. 2, and I think it’s good for my colleagues to know that I have no vision beyond Nov. 2,” he said.

He added, “I’m not ruling out anything in the future. … I am focused on succeeding as best as we can and having as robust a majority as we can for Democrats after that.”

While Menendez’s colleagues describe him as harried and focused on Senate races, he also has been active in what some characterized as picking fights with fellow Democrats — particularly with the White House.

“You don’t want to antagonize the administration, because one thing people want in a leader is a team player,” one senior Democratic source said. “It’s fair to say that people in Washington are trying to evaluate whether he’s graduated to the big leagues yet.”

The source added, “He needs to move away from the old-school politics that he was known for in New Jersey.”

Last spring, the Cuban-American Menendez threatened to vote against a must-pass omnibus spending bill because it relaxed travel and trade restrictions on Cuba. His stance angered Democratic leaders and the White House: Threatening to kill crucial legislation is a no-no in Democratic leadership ranks.

But it wasn’t as if Menendez’s vote would have been decisive, and at one point, he told Reid he would back off if needed. Several other Democrats were also opposed to the bill, and Republican support was necessary to beat back the attempted GOP-led filibuster.

Menendez also held up two Obama nominees in order to win concessions from the White House on Cuba policy. During the omnibus debate, he — along with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) — eventually got a letter from the Treasury Department promising to narrowly interpret the language in the bill.

And just last week, Menendez used unusually tough language to describe the president’s March 31 proposal to expand offshore drilling, saying the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico proved that the president made a “fundamentally terrible choice.”

Though the White House put the drilling plans on hold after the April 20 oil rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana, Menendez took the administration to task.

“It just seems to me that the administration made the wrong choice,” he said. “It’s interesting to me that they didn’t choose the West Coast to drill on. They’ve chosen the East Coast to drill on.”

Of course, Menendez is not the only Democratic leader to criticize the White House.

In the aftermath of the failed Times Square bombing, Schumer has complained about administration cuts to Homeland Security funding for New York City, and he also called on the White House to move the terrorism trial of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed out of New York.

But unlike Schumer, some sources said Menendez has failed to lead on issues and establish himself as a visionary capable of rising in the Democratic ranks.

“He hasn’t really stepped out on issues,” said one Senate Democratic aide. “There needs to be a sense of gravitas and discipline.”

Still, Menendez has shown his ambition and drive at regular intervals in his career.

“I saw his rise in the House to the leadership position,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said. “He earned it all the way. The same thing here. And everyone who has seen him work and seen how efficient he is and how willing he is to put in the labor, he’s entitled the respect that his efforts have borne.”

As a House Member in 2002, Menendez won the chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus — the No. 3 spot — by just one vote. When then newly elected Gov. Corzine was looking to replace himself in the Senate, Menendez outmaneuvered other Democrats to snag the appointment.

But when Reid asked him to take on the DSCC in the fall of 2008, Menendez initially demurred. Sources said Reid had to ask him three times before he would commit.

Democrats said Menendez’s reluctance might have come from the fact that his performance was destined to be considered lackluster after Schumer’s successful four-year run as chairman. First, Schumer delivered the majority to Democrats in 2006, and then in 2008 he served up the largest Senate majority of any party since the 1970s.

But Menendez is battling against a deep economic slump and a serious anti-incumbent mood this cycle. Political pundits have predicted an overall Democratic loss of as many as eight seats — possibly including Reid’s.

Though some Democrats — particularly in the White House — have blamed Menendez for the January special election loss of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) seat to now-Sen. Scott Brown (R), the chairman’s defenders say he has made the most of a lot of bad situations.

“He’s done an exceptional job in a very tough year,” Durbin said. “This isn’t easy. I mean, it’s a challenging year historically — we knew it. It’s a challenging year financially, coming off a presidential race, and he’s had a real challenge but he’s done a terrific job.”

In fact, the DSCC has raised about $2.5 million more and has more cash on hand than the National Republican Senatorial Committee so far this cycle.

And even though Menendez will likely not be blamed for some predictable defeats this fall, Members do hope his work this cycle will help mitigate those losses.

The Senate Democratic aide said party defeats could end up being “a weight around his ankles” if the party takes a serious beating this year.

Lautenberg, however, said Menendez would likely reap the benefits and get credit for taking a job no one else wanted.

“The score’s not in yet. But I guarantee you that if there is any measure of success, he’s going to get full credit for it, and I don’t think he’s going to get the blame,” he said.

Menendez may have little to worry about in that respect. Plenty of other current and previous Democratic leaders — including now-Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) during her 2002 stint — have had losing runs atop the DSCC.

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