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The critical difference that could save Cuellar

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Rep. Henry Cuellar’s indictment marks the third high-profile Hispanic lawmaker to have been indicted in recent months. Critically, the influential Congressional Hispanic Caucus is coming to his defense.

That’s a marked difference from how the group treated Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a fellow member who was indicted on charges that he and his wife accepted bribes in forms of cash, a car and gold bars to help aid the Egyptian government. Generally, the CHC has stayed far away from Menendez’s issues, but they’re explicitly defending Cuellar — who’s also accused of accepting bribes to help a foreign government.

It’s a small but significant silver lining for the freshly charged Texan.

“Congressman Cuellar has been a steadfast advocate for his constituents in South Texas and an important voice in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” Hispanic Caucus spokesperson Brian Garcia told us in a statement. “The Congressman has stated that he is innocent of the allegations in the indictment and that he was proactive in seeking Ethics Committee guidance. He deserves his day in court to respond.”

Garcia didn’t detail why they would officially defend Cuellar and not Menendez. But Cuellar’s lawyer, Chris Flood, had his own take for why the two cases are different: it’s “in the details.”

“I don’t know what the details are in the Menendez case, but there is no quid pro quo in the Cuellar case,” Flood told us in a brief interview.

Why does the CHC’s position matter? Consider the case of our third recently indicted lawmaker, former Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), whose colorful transgressions had played out over months before he was booted from the House in December. He had far fewer Hill allies to count on and was already radioactive to much of the House GOP conference when his expulsion vote came up. Even if he had somehow survived, the chances of him getting reelected were slim to none.

While Cuellar was already automatically booted from leading an appropriations subpanel, due to House Democrats’ rules on indicted members, the CHC statement shows he can still count on high-profile allies. That gives him a shot at staying in the House — though his reelection is in serious peril.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to tri-caucus watchers that they’d hold their fire on a longtime respected incumbent. The influential blocs of Hispanic, Black and Asian American lawmakers generally defer to seniority, and top Hispanic lawmakers are also backing the reelection bid of Rep. Rob Menendez (D-N.J.), Bob Menendez’s son, who’s facing a competitive primary (there’s no indication Rob Menendez is part of the elder Menendez’s corruption scandal).

Cuellar and his wife Imelda can’t leave the Southern or Western Texas Court Districts under the conditions of release, though he can travel to Washington, D.C. for congressional purposes. International travel requires court permission, and they had their firearms confiscated, too. The trial is scheduled to start in July.

Here’s where it gets tricky for Democrats. New York Republicans led the charge on expelling Santos, arguing to leadership that keeping him in the House could drag down their own reelection chances. Democrats don’t seem to have the same fears related to Cuellar, yet, but they have to ensure his case doesn’t broadly stain other members of the party with the corruption label. Republicans and even some members of their own party could make that difficult.

“Dems should vote to expel him, just as they should expel Menendez,” Ezra Levin, cofounder of progressive group Indivisible, posted on X. “Failure to do that weakens the Dem brand, encourages disaffected voters to believe both sides are corrupt, and risks handing votes to Trump & MAGA.”

Santos, never one to pass up a shot in the spotlight, is calling for Cuellar to be expelled. Only one sitting House Democrat has called for Cuellar to go: Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), an iconoclast in the party best known these days for trying to challenge President Joe Biden for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination.