US Senate foreign relations panel meets after chairman resigns over Egypt bribery scandal

Committee holds first hearing since Bob Menendez stepped down after being charged with corruption

Senator Bob Menendez at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. Bloomberg
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The influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has the power to withhold US aid and funding to foreign militaries, held its first hearing on Wednesday since Democrat Bob Menendez stepped down as chairman last month amid bribery allegations.

His replacement, fellow Democrat Ben Cardin, is trying to draw a line under the scandal that saw Mr Menendez hit with federal corruption charges. He and his wife have been accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to help Cairo and three Egyptian businessmen. The senator has denied the charges.

Mr Cardin briefly addressed the issue in an opening statement, in which he sought to reassure Washington's global partners that the committee would “continue to advance our values on the global stage”.

“Let me start by making something crystal clear to the international community: as this committee moves forward, we will continue our work on behalf of the American people as we have done for more than two centuries,” he said at the start the hearing, which was unusually well attended.

On Tuesday, Mr Cardin announced he was blocking military financing to Egypt over human rights concerns – a departure from when Mr Menendez ran the committee.

“I intend to exercise fully the committee’s oversight responsibilities and my authorities to hold foreign military funds and the sale of arms to the government of Egypt, if it does not take concrete, meaningful and sustainable steps to improve the human rights conditions in the country,” he said in a statement.

A defiant Mr Menendez, who has forcefully denied the charges listed in the indictment, briefly appeared at the hearing as a committee member but did not address the corruption case. He has pleaded not guilty and is out on $100,000 bail.

Among the more sensational details of his indictment were photos of gold bars and cash-stuffed envelopes.

He has been ordered by a judge not to have contact, outside of the presence of lawyers, with members of his Senate staff, Foreign Relations Committee staff or political advisers who have personal knowledge about the facts of the case.

Before the hearing began, he sat next to Mr Cardin, the two smiling at the podium as they appeared to engage in friendly conversation.

He later asked witness Scott Nathan, chief executive of Washington's Development Finance Corporation, about how US strategic investments can counter Chinese influence and pushed for greater investment in Latin America to help address the southern border crisis.

Mr Menendez exited after his five minutes of questioning, which is typical for senators at committee hearings.

More than half of Mr Menendez's Democratic colleagues in the Senate have called on him to resign.

Jim Risch, the senior Republican on the committee, also sought to signal a fresh start.

“Changes are inevitable on the committee, and we have processes in place for a seamless transition,” Mr Risch said.

“There is nothing more non-partisan and bipartisan than national interests in the national security of the United States of America. This committee certainly leads us forward in that regard.”

Outside of the hearing, Mr Cardin on Wednesday indicated he would continue Mr Menendez's advocacy on the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

He issued a statement arguing that Washington should halt aid to Azerbaijan until it stops its “co-ordinated, intentional campaign of ethnic cleansing” against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Updated: October 04, 2023, 8:08 PM