Menendez could remain in Senate even if he’s convicted
As the bribery case against Sen. Bob Menendez concludes, Senate Democrats could face a stark question — how long will they stick by the New Jersey Democrat if he’s convicted?
Menendez’s lawyers have a final chance Monday in their closing arguments to persuade the jury hearing his case in Newark that the veteran lawmaker is not guilty.
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With Menendez’s fate likely to be decided within days, Democrats are already quietly strategizing on how to respond if he’s found guilty. They will be in no rush to expel or force Menendez out of office, even if a Democrat wins the New Jersey gubernatorial race, according to several Democratic senators and aides.
Menendez was indicted by the Justice Department in April 2015 and accused of taking official acts on behalf of a close friend and donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, including helping the Florida ophthalmologist with an multi-million-dollar Medicare dispute, in exchange for hotel rooms, private jet flights and around $750,000 in political contributions. Melgen has already been convicted in the Medicare overbilling case and is awaiting sentencing.
Menendez has refused to say whether he’d resign if convicted. If he is found guilty, Senate Republicans are expected to quickly try to expel him from the Senate, giving GOP Gov. Chris Christie a chance to name a Republican replacement for the Democratic lawmaker.
But expelling Menendez — even if he is convicted of a felony — might not be that easy.
Republicans need a two-thirds majority in the Senate to agree to expel a member, which means they would need Democratic votes. With partisan tensions so high — Democrats are still bitter that Republicans denied President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland the seat last year, among a host of other issues — they are in no mood to cooperate with the GOP majority.
In addition, New Jersey voters are about to pick a new governor. Democrat Phil Murphy is leading in the polls. If Murphy wins and takes office in January, he could replace Menendez with a Democrat, so the party would have incentive to delay rather than allow Christie to choose a new senator.
Democrats might even support Menendez staying in office even if Murphy takes over as governor. In private, several Democratic senators and aides said they’re not feeling any political pressure yet to cut ties to Menendez if he’s convicted. That might change if he’s found guilty, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President Donald Trump — joined by editorial pages across the country — turn up the heat on them. But for now, Democrats remain committed to supporting Menendez through at least January, if not longer.
Democratic leaders, though, would almost certainly balk if Menendez is convicted and still tries to run for reelection. They likely would only allow him to stay in the Senate during an appeals process if he commits to leaving in January 2019.
“I don’t know if we’d be in a hurry to get rid of Bob,” said a Senate Democrat who is up for reelection in 2018. “It would be a tough vote for folks like me, but I think the rest of the caucus would stick with him.”
He’s nearly certain to appeal any conviction, based on the defense team’s complaints about U.S. District Judge William Walls, who has presided over the trial. Menendez and Melgen’s lawyers sought a mistrial last week, which Wells refused.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) office would not comment on Menendez or how Democrats would react if he’s convicted. Nearly all Democrats — and Republicans — didn’t want to talk about it publicly either.