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Democratic senators open to expelling Menendez if convicted, as party leaders struggle with indicted members

<i>David Dee Delgado/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Sen. Bob Menendez arrives for trial at Manhattan Federal Court in New York City on May 14. Democratic senators are signaling an openness to expelling Menendez if he’s convicted in his corruption trial
David Dee Delgado/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Sen. Bob Menendez arrives for trial at Manhattan Federal Court in New York City on May 14. Democratic senators are signaling an openness to expelling Menendez if he’s convicted in his corruption trial

By Morgan Rimmer and Manu Raju, CNN

(CNN) — Democratic senators are signaling an openness to expelling Sen. Bob Menendez if he’s convicted in his corruption trial, as House and Senate leaders tread carefully around their indicted colleagues.

As Menendez sits in a New York courtroom fighting charges he abused his office and enriched himself to aid the governments of Egypt and Qatar, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas has been indicted on federal bribery charges. Both Democrats have pleaded not guilty.

While Menendez could face a verdict in the next few weeks, Cuellar’s case will take months to process — putting House Democratic leaders in a jam as they weigh how to handle a member who is running for reelection in a seat that could flip to the GOP.

One reason they’re in a complicated position: Many were quick to call for the expulsion of then-Rep. George Santos before his case on fraud and money laundering charges went to trial. The New York Republican ultimately became the sixth House member ever to be expelled amid his litany of criminal charges and a damning House ethics report. Santos has also pleaded not guilty.

Democratic leaders in the House have stopped short of calling on Cuellar to resign, putting those who led the push to oust Santos on the defensive.

Rep. Dan Goldman, a Democrat from New York, defended his decision not to call for Cuellar’s resignation even though Goldman was one of the earliest and loudest voices to call on Santos to leave Congress.

“George Santos had admitted to enough misconduct to show that he should not be a member of Congress,” Goldman said. “He admitted to lying throughout his campaign, to deceiving his voters. And that is certainly more than enough to warrant an expulsion.

“Mr. Cuellar is indicted, he’s presumed innocent, he has disputed the charges against him, and until he either admits to the conduct or is convicted of the conduct, or is found by the ethics committee to have violated the rules of the House, he should be presumed innocent,” Goldman added.

Rep. Robert Garcia, a California Democrat who helped lead the push to oust Santos, claimed the situation involving the Republican was different because “Santos also admitted to actually a crime,” referring to a case involving two forged checks from 2008 in Brazil.

“That was a trigger for us,” Garcia said. “But I think what is going on with Henry Cuellar is very serious. … I’m very disturbed. Democrats should and will react appropriately.”

He added that he is not ready to call for Cuellar’s resignation, saying, “I think we have got to wait and see what happens in the weeks ahead.”

House Democratic leaders, similarly, have stopped short of calling on Cuellar to resign.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the House minority leader, would not say whether he backs Cuellar’s reelection bid but also said he wasn’t revoking his prior endorsement of the Texas Democrat.

“I have not rescinded the endorsement,” Jeffries said of Cuellar.

And the No. 3 House Democrat, Pete Aguilar of California, wouldn’t comment when asked whether he backs Cuellar’s reelection bid, even in the face of three of the Texas Democrats’ associates pleading guilty in his bribery case.

“I’ll talk about it in the press conference next week,” he told CNN.

While House Democratic leaders plan to wait out Cuellar’s case, the issue could come to a head more quickly for Menendez in the Senate.

If Menendez were to face expulsion, he would be only the 16th senator ever expelled — and the first since 1862. Fourteen of the previously expelled senators were removed from 1861-1862 due to their support for the Confederacy.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York refused to comment when asked whether he’d support expelling Menendez if he is convicted. “He’s on trial so I’m not going to comment,” he told reporters last week.

But others signaled an openness to it.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat whose seat is vulnerable, said he wants to see how the trial goes but acknowledged that a conviction would force him to change his approach to Menendez.

“I will cross that bridge when we get to it,” Tester said. “We’ll let the legal system do what it needs to do. As I’ve said every time, nobody is above the law. If he’s found to be guilty, that does change the equation.”

Other vulnerable Democrats — Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio — both said they would wait for the trial to play out before taking a position on a potential Menendez expulsion.

“I called on him to resign months ago,” Casey told CNN. “My position has been very clear.”

Some were more open to an actual expulsion.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, added that Menendez should be expelled if he is convicted. “I haven’t thought about that or spent one second on it, but I guess if he’s convicted, he should be,” he said.

Others were careful not to go as far.

“Look, my view is he should have resigned long ago,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Asked again whether he should be expelled if convicted, Warren added: “Right now, I said he should resign. He does not belong here.”

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