In front of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), a phalanx of cameras awaited Hillary Rodham Clinton. To his right sat a set of forceful Republicans primed for confrontation.
Overseeing the politically charged hearing on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012, on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, was Menendez, the Democrat poised to become chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
This week will provide a high-profile preview of Menendez's new role as head of a committee that oversees how the United States interacts with the rest of the world and navigates its conflicts and alliances.
After Wednesday's much-anticipated hearing with Clinton, Menendez is to preside Thursday over a confirmation hearing for Sen. John Kerry, who has been nominated to succeed Clinton as secretary of state. If Kerry (D., Mass.), the current Foreign Relations Committee chairman, is confirmed, Menendez would take his place at the head of the panel.
"While I'm not quite officially the chairman yet, it's one heck of a start," Menendez said Wednesday after the 21/2-hour hearing.
It was a first example of the weighty debates and critical oversight Menendez would lead as chairman -- and the national attention such issues bring.
The expansive Senate hearing room was packed with journalists and other observers. Television reporters did stand-ups in a variety of languages.
Clinton, America's top diplomat, former first lady, former Democratic presidential candidate, and possible contender again in 2016, was the center of attention, answering pointed questions from Republicans who have long accused the Obama administration of displaying incompetence in the Benghazi episode and misleading the public about the nature of the assault.
On the committee were boldface political names bristling with contention: Republican John McCain, the former presidential nominee, and two GOP senators with rising national profiles -- Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Menendez, in a blue suit, light-blue shirt, and wine-red tie, opened the hearing with his own statement, set a five-minute time limit for each senator to ask questions, and observed from his seat in the middle of it all.
Menendez, 59, son of Cuban immigrants, was appointed to the Senate by Gov. Jon S. Corzine in 2006 and won his second full term in November.
At times Wednesday, he leaned over to whisper with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the committee, and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, one of the panel's senior Democrats.
When the questions ended, Menendez countered McCain's and Paul's fiery criticism of Obama administration statements that initially tied the Benghazi assault to a protest demonstration; the conclusion was that it was a terrorist attack.
"Maybe the admonition that we should know before we speak is incredibly important," Menendez said. "That would have been incredibly important when we were told there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
Afterward, Menendez took a few questions from waiting reporters -- then switched seamlessly to Spanish for interviews with Spanish-language news stations.
Then he ducked into a hallway, out of a newfound spotlight -- at least until Thursday.
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