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Menendez presses on despite speculation about charges

WASHINGTON - It was business as usual Monday for New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez - at least in public - just days after reports surfaced that he could face federal corruption charges in the coming weeks.

WASHINGTON - It was business as usual Monday for New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez - at least in public - just days after reports surfaced that he could face federal corruption charges in the coming weeks.

Menendez, the top Senate Democrat on foreign affairs, spoke about Russia policy at a think tank's afternoon talk, then voted to confirm President Obama's nominee to become the country's coordinator of intellectual property enforcement.

But when he walked through the crowd of reporters after his vote at the Capitol, they weren't asking about Russia, his bills on Iran, or forthcoming votes.

They asked about his grip on his career and high-profile committee post after reports Friday that Menendez is expected to be indicted on corruption charges alleging that he improperly used his office to benefit a friend and political benefactor, Salomon Melgen.

"I haven't been charged with anything, so you guys are way ahead," Menendez said as reporters hovered over him.

On Friday, Menendez said he had always conducted himself "appropriately and in accordance with the law" and added, "I'm not going anywhere." He said he had nothing to add Monday.

Those in New Jersey Democratic circles say they cannot imagine the combative, ambitious senator stepping aside calmly.

But if the reports of a coming indictment are accurate, Menendez's high-profile Foreign Relations Committee post could be in danger.

While Democrats and many Republicans stood by Menendez on Monday or declined to criticize him before any charges are brought - with some in the GOP speculating about White House conspiracies - that position could become tenuous in the event of an indictment.

Senate Democrats would then have to decide if they want their voice on global affairs to be a senator facing criminal charges.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R., Alaska) remained in the Senate while on trial for corruption, but was forced to give up his posts as the senior Republican on the Commerce Committee and the defense appropriations subcommittee.

Similarly, Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) remains in office but lost his seat as the top Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee after being admonished by the House Ethics Committee.

Asked Monday if he was worried about his perch on the Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez said, "I am not."

While the Republicans' Senate campaign arm has called for Menendez to step down so he can "spare the Senate, the people of New Jersey, and himself any more embarrassment," the decision to strip him of his committee jobs would come down to Democratic leaders.

The Senate's top Democrat, Harry Reid (D., Nev.), has been pulled into the fray. He voluntarily met with Justice Department lawyers and FBI agents about the case, Politico reported.

Reid joined Menendez for one high-level meeting at which the New Jersey senator advocated for Melgen, according to federal court papers. Prosecutors have investigated Menendez for aiding Melgen in a dispute with the government over Medicare billing and trying to get a lucrative security contract enforced in the Dominican Republic, according to the documents.

Republicans were not ready to pounce on Menendez, though, with several instead pointing to Obama.

Several speculated that the news leak might be payback over Menendez's criticism of Obama's negotiations with Iran over Tehran's nuclear program. Those talks are approaching a critical deadline.

"I'm worried now by leaking. . . . It's politically motivated to silence Bob for his work," said Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), who has long worked with Menendez to try to impose new sanctions on Iran, against Obama's wishes.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) told reporters in Iowa over the weekend that "the timing seems awfully coincidental" and that the report "raises the suggestion to other Democrats that if you dare part from the Obama White House, that criminal prosecutions will be used potentially as a political weapon against you as well."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who has worked closely with Menendez, told Bloomberg Politics: "It just doesn't smell right."

Menendez said he would not join in the speculation.

The White House denied any connection and would not confirm that charges may be pending.

The administration takes "very seriously" the principle "that criminal prosecutions are kept separate and apart from any sort of political interference," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The investigations into Melgen and Menendez long predate the recent jousting over Iran.

Many members of both parties declined to speculate.

"No charges have been filed, so I am not commenting," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), the Senate's third-ranking Democrat.

"Premature," said Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), a member of the Foreign Relations panel.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who sat on the Foreign Relations Committee when Menendez was the chairman, said, "I admire and respect" Menendez.

New Jersey's junior senator, Democrat Cory Booker, called it "irresponsible" to make presumptions based on leaks.

"I can speak to the truth I know, and what I see and I've experienced is that New Jersey has a great senator in Bob Menendez," Booker said. "I've been proud to serve with him."