A widening rift between President Barack Obama and New Jersey Democrat Sen. Robert Menendez over Cuba and the administration's nuclear negotiations with Iran has Republicans speculating that the disagreement could portend new support for the GOP on foreign relations.
Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has co-sponsored a bill which imposes new sanctions against Iran if the administration cannot show significant progress in its talks with Iran over its nuclear program by March 24, the Washington Post reports.
The bill has won the support of 13 Senate Democrats, which could provide enough votes to block a filibuster by Obama supporters, though likely not enough to override the veto Obama has promised, CNN reports
Menendez said that in the negotiations with Iran, the administration seems to be pushing "talking points that come straight out of Tehran," The New York Times reports
This led Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to say "anytime a senator from the other party will say something like that, it is helpful," and Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker to call Menendez "a great partner," the Times reports.
The conflict between Obama and Menendez intensified after Menendez said he took "personal offense" over comments from Obama during a Senate Democratic retreat in Baltimore that opposition to the Iran negotiations may be caused by the political considerations of some senators, CNN reported.
Menendez has received $341,170 over seven years from pro-Israel groups who want to scuttle the Iran negotiations, the Times notes.
Menendez told the Times: "I don't get calls from the White House," when asked if Obama had lobbied him to delay the bill.
Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, also has termed Obama's move to open diplomatic relations with Cuba a "bad deal," and added that Obama has "vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government," the Times reports.
Obama invited Menendez to fly to Lakehurst, N.J., on Air Force One two days before the announcement on Cuba, and Menendez's comment "to be notified when it is going to happen is not consultation" indicates the depth of Menendez's anger at the president, the Times notes.
The Obama administration favors continuing the Iran negotiations and resists imposing further sanctions because they believe that could cause Iran to walk out of the talks without progress on limiting its nuclear capability.
However, Menendez told CNN: "I do not believe in negotiating out of weakness. I believe in negotiating out of strength. I think weakness invites provocation. I think strength avoids it. So it is counterintuitive to understand that somehow Iran will walk away because of some sanctions that would never take place if they strike a deal and or (over) which the president has waiver authority."
Spokesmen for both sides have attempted to downplay the disagreements. Katie Beirne Fallon, Obama's congressional liason, told the Times: "There are a few high-profile things where we don't agree, but on 98 percent of the issues, we work very closely and well," while Adam Sharon, Menendez's communications director, told the Times that "it's not confrontational or adversarial or being a thorn in the president's side, but him (Menendez) being a leader, bridging the divides so that something can get done."
However, former Indiana Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh told the Times: "It makes the president's challenge of communicating his position to the American people more difficult when prominent members in his own camp are taking a different point of view."
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