Sen. Robert Menendez’s (D-N.J.) vow to keep his seat ran into an avalanche of calls to resign from his own party on Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning, only three Senate Democrats had called for Menendez to step down. By the end of the day that number had swelled to at least 20, creating trouble for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in the process.
Sen. Cory Booker, Menendez’s fellow New Jersey Democrat and longtime ally, broke his silence on Tuesday to call on him to step down, marking a major blow in the senior New Jersey senator’s quest to hold on after being indicted on federal bribery and corruption charges.
Booker was a top defender of Menendez after his 2015 indictment on corruption charges. Those charges were dropped in 2018. He nodded to that long friendship in his statement, saying he found it the charges Menendez is facing “hard to reconcile with the person I know.”
But in a lengthy statement, Booker labeled the latest allegations “shocking” and argued that Menendez is making a “mistake” by not resigning.
“Stepping down is not an admission of guilt but an acknowledgment that holding public office often demands tremendous sacrifices at great personal cost. Senator Menendez has made these sacrifices in the past to serve. And in this case he must do so again,” Booker said. “I believe stepping down is best for those Senator Menendez has spent his life serving.”
Other Senate Democrats joined the fray, including those up for reelection in 2024 and high-profile names.
“Yes,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told The Boston Globe when asked if he should do so. “These are serious charges, and it’s time for Sen. Menendez to step away from the Senate and concentrate on his legal defense.”
One group, however, remains notably absent in calls for Menendez to step down: the upper echelon of Senate Democratic leadership.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) remained mum on Tuesday and did not address the situation during his remarks to open the Senate floor. Instead, he focused on government spending, a potential shutdown later this week and the ongoing United Auto Workers strike.
The situation is setting up to be a major issue for Schumer to contend with. The New York Democrat could hold the keys to Menendez’s future, just as he did in 2017 when he quietly pushed then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to step aside after allegations of sexual misconduct and a growing drumbeat within the caucus calling for his resignation.
“This is a real test. It’s only a distraction as long as he lets it be one,” one Democratic operative told The Hill.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also did not further address the situation after his initial comments over the weekend.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the No. 3 Senate Democrat, however, became the highest-ranking member of the caucus to call for Menendez to resign.
“The allegations against Senator Bob Menendez are very concerning,” Stabenow said in a statement. “While he deserves his presumption of innocence, I believe it’s best for him to step down from the U.S. Senate.”
“Bob is a longtime colleague and it saddens me to come to this decision,” she continued.
One Senate Democratic aide said that more will likely be known on Wednesday when Senate Democrats meet for their weekly lunch, which will be the first chance for members to discuss it together.
“That’s probably where s*** will go down,” the aide continued.
Adding to the political conundrum for Schumer is that a number of those who have issued calls for Menendez’s resignation are also up for reelection next year: Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.).
“I’ve read the detailed charges against Senator Menendez and find them deeply disturbing,” Tester, who is widely considered to be one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats up in 2024, said in a statement. “While he deserves a fair trial like every other American, I believe Senator Menendez should resign for the sake of the public’s faith in the U.S. Senate.”
Among those who also joined the pro-resignation chorus on Tuesday was Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and argued that the New Jersey lawmaker “undermined the public’s faith.”
“He is no longer able to serve effectively in the U.S. Senate. I urge Sen. Menendez to resign,” he said.
Menendez though has shown precious few signs of being ready to vacate his seat. After issuing a searing statement on Friday and declaring that he isn’t “going anywhere,” he appeared Monday for a press event to decry those calling for his exit and to plead his innocence.
“I’m innocent, what’s wrong with you guys,” he said at the Capitol Tuesday.
Stabenow sought to set up a contrast between Democrats’ response to Menendez and how some Republicans have treated former President Trump’s four indictments.
“Contrary to the Republicans, we are not attacking the FBI or the Department of Justice or threatening violence against anyone,” Stabenow told The Hill. “I think we are approaching this with the seriousness that it deserves.”
The Menendez situation is also creating a potential political opening for Republicans, who sense an opportunity if he is on the ballot in November.
They declined to echo calls for giving Menendez the boot and argued that he should be afforded due process until his case is adjudicated.
“The allegations against the Senior Senator from New Jersey are nasty & the evidence offered difficult to explain away,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “But in America guilt is decided by a jury, not politicians in fear of their party losing a Senate seat.”
In the end, though, Senate Democrats say they’ll still have to work with Menendez.
“We’ll have to. Every state sends two, and if I want the folks who represent another state to respect the two that Virginia send, then I’ve got to be willing to work together,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said. “These charges are very, very serious. If they’re true, they’re disqualifying. But anybody charged with a crime, from President Trump [or] Hunter Biden to somebody who shows up in Richmond traffic court tomorrow, they’re entitled to argue that the charges aren’t true. Sen. Menendez is entitled too, but they are as serious as can be.”
Updated at 7:37 p.m.