Sen. Bob Menendez seeks breaks in his trial for key votes in Congress

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WASHINGTON — The immediate impact of Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption trial is laid bare in the Democrat’s latest court filing, in which he asks the judge to allow breaks in his trial so he can cast critical Senate votes looming in September.

If Menendez misses those votes, Democrats will be temporarily weakened as they try to battle President Trump’s agenda and as Congress takes up a series of critical issues.

In a motion filed Thursday, Menendez’s attorneys point to expected September votes on the federal debt limit, plans to keep the government funded and running and the National Flood Insurance Program — which affects more than 200,000 policy-holders in New Jersey — as well as looming efforts to overhaul the tax code and the still-lingering chance of another vote on health care.

The impact of a single senator was illustrated when a Republican health-care plan failed by just one vote.

“The Senate is divided by razor-thin margins on consequential legislation, making Sen. Menendez’s absence from any particular vote potentially determinative,” his lawyers wrote in their filing.

Menendez’s legal team argued that because of his constitutional obligations, the senator is in a different situation from most defendants. But if he goes to Washington to vote, they argued, jurors might take his absence as a sign that he doesn’t care much about the case or the charges and hold it against him.

“He has constitutional obligations, which can only be discharged several hours from the location of his trial,” the senator’s attorneys wrote.

Asked about the trial, an aide to a senior Democrat wrote in an email, “Given the magnitude of the issues facing the Senate in September, including government funding and the debt ceiling, his vote will be important.” Republicans’ Senate campaign arm, meanwhile, argued that Menendez is unable to do his job because of his trial, and that New Jersey’s representation will be effectively halved.

Menendez’s lawyers asked District Judge William Walls to allow breaks in the trial as critical votes arise, so that Menendez can head to Washington.

Federal prosecutors, responding Friday, wrote that Menendez is seeking special treatment based on his status as a senator, and that political consequences in Washington should have no impact on the schedule of a trial in Newark.

“Many defendants try to evade their criminal trials — but only a United States senator can try to hide behind the very office he corrupted to avoid accountability to the public for his actions,” Department of Justice attorneys wrote in a court filing. “Every defendant should be treated equally, and no defendant should receive special treatment based on power or privilege.”

Prosecutors also argued that there is no precedent for scheduling a trial around Senate votes. “Defendant Menendez failed to find a single case supporting his assertion that his status as a United States senator affords him the right to dictate the schedule of his criminal trial,” the department wrote in its response Friday.

Menendez’s attorneys argue that he has both the right to confront witnesses against him and a constitutional responsibility to fulfill his Senate duties.

Walls, the judge, has already indicated in stark terms that he is not sympathetic to Menendez’s arguments.

“I’ll put it in street terms: I ain’t permitting that,” Walls told one of the senator’s lawyers when the topic came up at jury selection earlier this week, according to Politico. “All right? If he absents himself, he is no better and no worse than any other defendant. He has a right to be absent, and that’s it.”

The immediate issue of Menendez’s absence from Washington during a trial expected to last six to eight weeks is a microcosm of the larger dilemma facing Democrats in the Capitol. If he is convicted and forced from office while Gov. Christie is still in charge in New Jersey, the Republican would appoint a Senate replacement — almost certainly giving the GOP an added vote in a chamber where they now have only a two-vote margin.

Menendez is accused of using his office to help a friend and donor, Salomon Melgen, in return for lavish gifts and massive campaign contributions to aid his 2012 reelection. The senator has said the gifts were simply presents between friends and that he acted on policy concerns. He has vowed to be vindicated at trial.

Opening arguments are scheduled to begin Sept. 6.

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