WASHINGTON — Efforts to increase pressure on Iran and formally authorize the war against the Islamic State group could be set back if Sen. Bob Menendez is forced out of his committee leadership post.

The New Jersey Democrat is expected to face federal criminal charges for allegedly using his office to illegally help a friend's business interests. That friend also is a major political donor. Menendez denies any wrongdoing.

When the Senate gavels back into session Monday afternoon, pressure is expected to ramp up on the Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to remove Menendez as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Typically, when these kinds of charges are brought, people step aside from their leadership positions," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation" program. "But that will be up to the Democratic leader, Sen. Reid, to make that call."

The investigation into Menendez's relationship with Florida Doctor eye surgeon Salomon Melgen has been ongoing for several years. In January 2013, Politico reported that Reid, when asked about the scandal, called Menendez "my friend."

"He's an outstanding senator," Reid said then. "Any questions in this regard direct to him. I don't know anything about it."

The Democratic leader has yet to comment publicly on how he would respond once Menendez is charged by the US Justice Department.

If Reid ousts Menendez from his committee leadership post, it would leave him politically and legislatively damaged at a time he is leading an effort on Iran.

Menendez is the cosponsor of legislation that would require Congress to approve any deal between Iran and five Western powers over Tehran's nuclear arms program. But he is spearheading an effort to ensure those negotiations are allowed to progress to a March 24 deadline before the full Senate votes on his bill.

Word of the Menendez charges went public Friday afternoon, one day after Menendez and nine other Senate Democrats scored a major victory by forcing McConnell to put off a planned Tuesday vote on the legislation.

Last Wednesday, Menendez told reporters he was concerned the Iran bill was being "hijacked for a political purpose."

"We can get this whole process done well before June and be ready for the process to take place," Menendez said. "So I don't understand why this rush to the floor, violating regular order, which the majority leader himself has called for."

Should Menendez be forced to relinquish his ranking-member post, a leadership void among Democrats would immediately form on that issue and a controversial effort to write an authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) for the Islamic State conflict.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is next in line. But she also holds two senior committee posts: ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and vice chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.

Next would be Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who already is ranking member of the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. After him is Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who has no committee leadership posts.

Of the other senators who signed the letter to McConnell, only Senate Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has more political clout than Menendez. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., is well-respected on Capitol Hill but is still in his first term.

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Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and other Republicans have been complimentary of Menendez's efforts on both issues.

"I respect his opinion very much," Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., last week said of Menendez's work on Iran's nuclear program.

If Menendez has to give up the ranking member post, Corker could lose a key partner. Increasingly, Corker and Menendez are mentioned by members in tandem when asked about foreign policy and national security issues. Kaine last week referred to them as "the two Bobs."

Email: jbennett@defensenews.com

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