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Menendez told colleagues he’s not quitting. Now what?

Ethics Chairman Chris Coons left the room when Menendez spoke

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is questioned by reporters Thursday after he addressed Democratic colleagues, many of whom have called on him to resign because of his indictment on federal corruption charges.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is questioned by reporters Thursday after he addressed Democratic colleagues, many of whom have called on him to resign because of his indictment on federal corruption charges. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Bob Menendez told his Democratic colleagues at a private luncheon Thursday what he has said through press statements and a public appearance since he was indicted with his wife on federal bribery charges last week: He does not intend to resign.

Menendez’s rejection of calls from more than half the Senate’s Democratic caucus — including fellow New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and much of the state party’s power structure — did not produce any immediate impact. 

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., said Menendez told the caucus he would not resign and did not answer questions about the charges, which allege Menendez and his wife got cash, gold and a Mercedes-Benz convertible from three businessmen in exchange for Menendez using his office to help the businessmen and the government of Egypt.

Other colleagues who were in the room were not willing to say much more about it, though none who had called for his resignation said they had changed their mind.

The chairman of the Senate’s ethics committee, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, stepped out of the party lunch when Menendez spoke. That could be significant, since any Senate effort to expel Menendez would likely start in Coons’ committee, which “severely admonished” Menendez in 2018 after he was indicted for but not convicted of unrelated bribery charges. 

While not commenting on Menendez specifically, the committee had said after the indictment was unsealed Friday it defers to prosecutors “absent special circumstances.” But some senators, including President Pro Tem Patty Murray, D-Wash., have urged the committee to look at the case.

Leaving the luncheon, Menendez told reporters he will “continue to cast votes on behalf of the people in New Jersey as I have for 18 years,” according to CNN.

Menendez said Monday in New Jersey he would fight the charges and be exonerated. He pleaded not guilty at an arraignment in U.S. District Court in New York City on Wednesday.

Menendez temporarily stepped down as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee last week, as Senate rules dictate. Since then, at least 29 Democrats have called on him to resign; no Republicans have publicly called for his resignation.

Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, the first Democrat to call for Menendez to step down, did not attend the lunch. 

“I was very clear that … I’m not interested in some kind of explanation on why he has gold bars in his mattress,” Fetterman said Thursday. “But from what I understand that he refuses to [resign] and he’s defiant, and again, that’s … a level of arrogance that is astonishing.”

Fetterman said he would support a resolution expelling Menendez from the Senate, a rarely used action that would require a vote from two-thirds of the Senate. 

“Now that it’s confirmed that he’s not going to go the honorable way, I would like to pursue whatever avenues are available,’’ he said. 

However, senators are almost never expelled: Fourteen of the 15 successful expulsions were of senators who supported the Confederacy. The only other one came in 1797. 

The most recent expulsion cases, according to the Senate Historical Office, were in the corruption case of Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr., also a New Jersey Democrat, and the sexual misconduct case of former Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood, R-Ore. Both resigned before they could be thrown out, but after the ethics committee had recommended expulsion.

Proceedings against Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., did not get that far, with his resignation coming before the Ethics Committee would make a recommendation. The panel nonetheless took the unusual step of releasing a rebuke with a 75-page public report. 

Fetterman told reporters that he hoped Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., would demand Menendez resign, something Schumer has stopped short of doing. 

“But I’m not in a position to tell him what he should do. I hope he does. And I hope the rest of our caucus and the Republicans join … the rest that have already made the right call on that.”

Fetterman expressed concern that the corruption case could hurt Democrats running in tight races next year. 

“You have our colleagues in tough races right now, in my state, or Montana, Ohio. And the kind of baggage that he brings to this already makes it already difficult and now it puts New Jersey in play,” Fetterman said.

In addition to Menendez’ Democratic colleagues in the Senate, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, most of the state’s House delegation and several of the state’s powerful county party chairs have also called on Menendez to step down. After he refused last week, Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., said he would challenge Menendez for the party’s nomination next year.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales changed its rating on the New Jersey race after the indictment from Solid Democratic to Likely Democratic.

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