Fellow Senators give Menendez breathing room

FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2013 file photo, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Menendez's office says he traveled on a plane owned by a Florida physician who is a friend and political donor, but denied that the senator had engaged with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON -- The news media is circling New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez over a series of ethics allegations, but fellow lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are giving him some breathing room.

Eight senators over the past two days either said Menendez deserves to remain the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or declined to take a stand on the questions raised in news reports about Menendez’s interventions on behalf of South Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, a friend and donor.

A New York Times editorial Saturday called for Menendez, a Democrat, to at least temporarily step down as the ethics committee looks into the issue, but no fellow Senators would go that far.

“Indications in the press are that the ethics committee is taking a look at those questions and that’s - let that process play out,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), a member of the foreign relations committee.

“That is an issue that is between him and his Democrat colleagues, certainly not us,” said Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), another committee member. “ I don’t know enough about the issue. All I know really is what I read in the periodicals ... we have an ethics committee and he’s of a different party, so I don’t have any reason to make a judgement.”

Those themes were repeated over and over by various members of the foreign relations committee and Senate leaders. They indicate that the issues raised so far have not risen to a level that fellow lawmakers feel they have to distance themselves from Menendez.

Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the top Republican on the panel that Menendez just recently took over as chairman, said “I don’t know enough of the details to even comment on it ... things like this take their course through the ethics committee.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), the top Senate official, said the “ethics committee has it” and “I'm talking about it no more.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), another foreign relations committee member said, “I’m just not going to make any comment one way or the other.”

“When you’re talking about someone’s reputation and personality I hate to give a comment when I don’t know if what people are saying is true or not,” Paul said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Ca.), who sits on the foreign relations panel and chairs the ethics committee, said “Sen. Menendez is chairman of the foreign relations committee and I will judge his performance and he’s doing a good job on that. His other issues you have to ask him about.”

As to the ethics inquiry she said, “I don’t comment on any complaint.”

Menendez and his aides, according to reports in the Times and Washington Post, have lobbied federal officials on at least two issues on behalf of Melgen: once to aid the doctor in a Medicare billing dispute and once to encourage officials to help Melgen in a dispute over a contract to screen port cargo in the Dominican Republic. Both instances raised questions about the steps Menendez took to help a major donor, though the senator has said “nobody has bought me.”

Menendez took two trips to the Dominican on Melgen's private plane in 2010 and didn't disclose or pay for them for more than two years. He wrote a $58,500 check in January, saying the original failure to pay was an "oversight."

Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) declined to comment on the issue while Menendez’s New Jersey colleague, Democrat Frank Lautenberg, backed the under-fire senator.

“Bob Menendez is a good senator and decisions will be made on the review as to whether or not there’s veracity,” Lautenberg said.