By Dorothy Li
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Sunday said the recent charges against Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) “very serious,” but he won’t call his Democratic colleague to resign.
Mr. Menendez was indicted along with his wife on Sept. 22. The charges against them, filed by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, include conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right.
Mr. Menendez denied any wrongdoing, describing the allegations as being part of a “smear campaign.”
“This is a very serious charge. There’s no question about it,” Mr. Durbin replied when asked whether Mr. Menendez should resign during CNN’s State of the Union program. “But it bears reminding us of what I have said about the indictments against Donald Trump, equally serious charges.”
“These are, in fact, indictments that have to be proven under the rule of law,” he said. “The person who is accused is entitled to the presumption of innocence. And it’s the responsibility of the government to prove that case.”
Mr. Durbin noted Mr. Menendez has lost his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in accordance with the Senate Democratic Caucus rules.
But “in terms of resignation, that’s a decision to be made by Senator Menendez and the people of New Jersey,” he said.
House Democrats’ Reaction
It is the second indictment on bribery charges for Mr. Menendez—and the second time he has had to relinquish his post as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel. He regained the leadership spot in 2018 after the case ended with a deadlocked jury.
Unlike the reaction when he was first charged eight years ago, many of New Jersey’s leading Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy, State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, and State Democratic Party Chair LeRoy Jones, have called for Mr. Menendez’s immediate resignation, shortly after the prosecutors announced the indictments.
Beyond New Jersey, calls for the senator to resign have come from Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a member of House Democratic leadership, who expressed disappointment and asserted that the senator should step down. Mr. Phillips further urged Senate leadership to take action.
Despite the growing pressure, Mr. Menendez has said he plans to stay in his role.
“Those who believe in justice believe in innocence until proven guilty. I intend to continue to fight for the people of New Jersey with the same success I’ve had for the past five decades,” Mr. Menendez said in a statement issued on Friday. “It is not lost on me how quickly some are rushing to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat. I am not going anywhere.”
On Sunday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said the resignation would be “in the best interest” of Mr. Menendez.
“The situation is quite unfortunate, but I do believe that it is in the best interest for Senator Menendez to resign in this moment,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I believe is in the best interest to maintain the integrity of the seat.”
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who has previously urged Mr. Menendez to step down, said the call is best “given the gravity of the charges.”
“I think, right now, given how we have got elections coming up, there’s a lot of distractions, obviously, giving the senator time to defend himself, I think what’s best is that he step aside,” Mr. Gottheimer told CNN.
Senate Democrats’ Reaction
In the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority, Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) is the first, and so far the only senator, to call on Mr. Menendez to quit.
“Senator Menendez should resign,” Mr. Fetterman, the freshman said in a statement on Saturday. “He’s entitled to the presumption of innocence, but he cannot continue to wield influence over national policy, especially given the serious and specific nature of the allegations.”
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) called the charges against Mr. Menendez “serious and shocking,” telling CBS that he has “never seen anything like this.”
However, he is reluctant to take a position.
“I think Senator Menendez is going to have to think long and hard about the cloud that’s going to hang over his service in the United States Senate,” Mr. Kelly said. “He’s got to figure out whether he can adequately serve the people of New Jersey.”
Mr. Menendez, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 2006, is up for reelection in 2024.
Asked whether he should run, Mr. Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “Well, I can tell you that it’s a significant event. Clearly, it is. And whether or not he will run for reelection remains to be seen.”
Caden Pearson and The associated Press contributed to this report.