WASHINGTON — The indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez on corruption charges Wednesday could create an opening for Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin to become the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Hours after a grand jury in Newark, N.J., handed up a 14-count indictment that included bribery and conspiracy charges, Menendez wrote to Democratic leaders that he would temporarily relinquish his position as the top Democrat on the powerful committee.
"This is not how my career is going to end," the New Jersey Democrat said during a news conference. "I'm angry and ready to fight because today contradicts my public service career and my entire life."
The next most senior Democrat on the panel is Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. Many believe she will retain her ranking position on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee rather than jump into Menendez's seat.
After Boxer, Cardin has the most seniority on the Foreign Relations Committee.
The post would be a major step for the Maryland lawmaker, who was first elected to the Senate in 2006. If Democrats reclaim control of the chamber in 2016 — as some believe the party has a chance to do — Cardin would become the chairman of one of the Senate's most influential panels.
A spokeswoman for Cardin and a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid declined to comment on a possible committee shake-up.
"As a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I believe that America is always stronger when we speak with one voice on foreign policy issues," Cardin said in a statement. "The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has an important role in defining that unified voice for America."
Reid said he appreciated Menendez's decision to step down temporarily.
A federal grand jury indictment accuses the New Jersey Democrat of using the power of his Senate seat to benefit Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye doctor who prosecutors say provided the senator with luxury vacations, airline travel, golf trips and tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to a legal defense fund.
Menendez is scheduled to appear in federal court in Newark on Thursday.
The indictment comes at a particularly sensitive time: The Obama administration is negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran that has been criticized by members of both parties.
Menendez and committee chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, are building support for a bill that would give Congress 60 days to review any deal — a proposal that is expected to advance this month despite opposition from the White House.
Cardin, meanwhile, has become increasingly vocal on international affairs. A former co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe — the so-called Helsinki Commission — Cardin has become a leading national voice on human rights around the world.
He strengthened his resume in 2012 when he successfully steered legislation through Congress to pressure Russia on human rights abuses, despite concerns from Moscow and the Obama administration.
Cardin, a longtime supporter of Israel, has backed stiffer sanctions against Iran. But he has been among a group of lawmakers willing to give the Obama administration more time to negotiate an agreement. He did not co-sponsor the Menendez-Corker bill.
He is the ranking member of the subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy and is also the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.
Menendez's indictment will likely lead to a drawn-out legal fight between the senator and a team of Justice Department prosecutors who have spent at least two years investigating his ties to Melgen.
It will require prosecutors to prove that a close and longtime friendship between the men was used for criminal purposes, and is likely to revive legal debate about the constitutional protections afforded to members of Congress for acts they take while in office.
Menendez acknowledged that he had taken several round-trip flights to the Dominican Republic on Melgen's luxury jet that, initially, were not properly reimbursed. But the 68-page document spells out additional gifts, such as a hotel stay in Paris and access to a Dominican resort, that were not reported on financial disclosure forms.
In exchange for those and other gifts, prosecutors allege, Menendez sought to smooth approval of the visa application process for several of Melgen's foreign girlfriends, sought to protect a lucrative contract Melgen held to provide cargo screening services to the Dominican Republic and intervened in a Medicare billing dispute on the doctor's behalf worth millions of dollars.
In 2013, in an email exchange one day after Melgen and Menendez had golfed together in Florida, Menendez told his chief counsel to contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ask the agency to stop donating shipping container monitoring and surveillance equipment to the Dominican Republic, according to the indictment. Melgen had a contract to provide exclusive cargo screening in Dominican ports, and the CBP plan would have hurt his financial interests, prosecutors say.
According to the Senate Historical Office, Menendez is the 12th senator to be indicted and the first since Sen. Ted Stevens was indicted in 2008 on charges of not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of home renovations.
Stevens, an Alaska Republican, was convicted but the charges were later dismissed.
Menendez, 61, joined the Senate in 2006 after serving more than a decade in the House of Representatives. A lawyer and former mayor of Union City, N.J., Menendez also served in the state's General Assembly and Senate.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.