Washington, D.C. – With Sen. John Kerry’s possible ascension to the post of U.S. Secretary of State, Sen. Robert Menendez likely would succeed the Massachusetts Democrat as the new chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who in January will be one of only three Latinos in the U.S. Senate, at present serves as chairman of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Global Narcotics Affairs.
The political publication The Hill said that as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez would command “a key role in approving diplomatic nominees and international treaties — crucial leverage to demand a tougher stance against America's foes.”
Political insiders say they expect Menendez -- a party loyalist who nonetheless has not hesitated to criticize presidents of both political parties when, for example, he perceives them to be soft on Cuba and Iran -- to be a tough chairman.
“You can't work around the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he's willing to dig in his heels on important issues,” The Hill quoted Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush, as saying about Menendez. “At the same time, he's going to be expected to be a team player -- but that has its limits.”
“I think he'll give folks in the administration something to think about before they cross him, frankly.”
Rumors had been rampant in Washington, D.C. about President Barack Obama’s expected nomination of Kerry as his next secretary of state.
If confirmed, Kerry would take the helm at the State Department from outgoing Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has long stated her intentions to leave early next year. Kerry is expected to be easily approved for the Cabinet post by his longtime Capitol Hill colleagues.
[Sen. Robert Menendez] will give folks in the administration something to think about before they cross him, frankly.
- Roger Noriega, former official in George W. Bush administration, quoted in The Hill
Menendez, the third ranking Democrat in the Foreign Relations Committee, is said to be the next line to take over because Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California who is the second ranking member, is expected to keep her chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Menendez, 59, has been in public service since he was 19 years old. At that time, he successfully launched a petition drive to reform his local school board, in Union City, N.J. – a hub for Cuban immigrants. He won election to the Union City Board of Education in 1974.
Menendez was born in Manhattan to immigrants from Cuba; his mother was a seamstress and his father was a carpenter.
A lawyer, Menendez served as mayor of Union City, then went on to become a New Jersey assemblyman, and then got elected to Congress. Once in the U.S. Senate, Menendez, considered one of the Congress’s most adept fundraisers, served as the chairman of the Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee, and helped the Democrats keep a majority in the U.S. Senate.
Kerry has long sought the nation's top diplomatic post. Obama considered him for the job after the 2008 election before picking Clinton in a surprise move.
Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, losing a close election to incumbent George W. Bush. He's a decorated Vietnam veteran who was critical of the war effort when he returned to the U.S., even testifying in front of the Senate committee he eventually chaired.
Kerry's only other rival for the job, U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, faced harsh criticism from congressional Republicans for her initial accounting of the deadly September attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Obama vigorously defended Rice, a close friend and longtime adviser, but GOP senators dug in, threatening to hold up her nomination if the president tapped her for the post.
Rice withdrew her name from consideration last week, making Kerry all but certain to become the nominee. People familiar with the White House's decision-making said support within the administration was moving toward Kerry even before Rice pulled out.
Kerry, 69, is the first Cabinet nomination Obama has made since winning a second term, and the first piece in an extensive shuffle of his national security team. The president is also expected soon to nominate a new defense secretary to take over for retiring Leon Panetta and a new director of the Central Intelligence Agency to replace former spy chief David Petreaus, who resigned last month after admitting to an affair with his biographer.
Since then, Obama has dispatched Kerry around the world on his behalf numerous times, particularly to tamp down diplomatic disputes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was also part of Obama's debate preparations team during the 2012 election, playing the role of Republican challenger Mitt Romney in mock debates.
Kerry also won praise from Obama aides for his sharp national security-focused speech at the Democratic National Convention in August. He memorably told delegates: "Ask Osama bin Laden if he's better off now than he was four years ago."
Many Latino groups have expressed hope that Obama’s appointments and nominations for his second term include Latinos, who were considered pivotal to his re-election. Latino voters turned out a record rate in November, comprising 10 percent of Americans casting ballots. More than 70 percent of Latino voters chose Obama over his GOP challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
This story contains material from The Associated Press.
Elizabeth Llorente is the Politics Editor/Senior Reporter for Fox News Latino, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnewslatino.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente