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Posted at 6:31 p.m. on Jan. 9, 2014
Lawmakers issued reviews ranging from nondescript to positive of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s Thursday news conference, largely reserving judgment on the bridge scandal that’s embroiled the potential presidential candidate’s administration.
That could spell trouble for Christie in the weeks ahead.
The GOP governor asserted at the news conference that he had no involvement in the scandal involving unannounced lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. His comments could come under fire as Congress awaits answers to outstanding questions and plans to press authorities further.
In December, Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., sent multiple letters — both to the New Jersey Port Authority and to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx — demanding explanations for the traffic jam and oversight over the Port Authority itself. His original request asked the Port Authority for answers by Jan. 15.
Rockefeller said Thursday he does not yet plan to hold hearings, but said he is continuing to monitor the situation closely. If the requested response from New Jersey officials does not come back complete, or at all, either Rockefeller or other senators on the committee, such as freshman New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, could take further action.
“I’ve spent all day watching MSNBC,” he told reporters.
“I don’t know, I’m never satisfied,” he teased, when asked if Christie’s answers allayed his previous concerns.
Booker said in an afternoon statement that he also demanded answers Thursday from the Department of Transportation. In the Capitol, Booker repeatedly rebuffed attempts for comment on Christie, noting only by the evening that he had heard part of the governor’s remarks.
Any congressional investigations would test Christie’s greater political viability for 2016, and his national ambitions would likely only amplify the debate, at least compared to other typical state scandals. And the longer unanswered questions linger, the more likely it is that senators and representatives will want to get involved or call hearings.
That dynamic was exemplified in reaction from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a longtime lawmaker who faces several primary challengers this cycle. South Carolina is a key state for presidential candidates because of its first in the South spot on the nominating calendar.
When Graham was approached by NBC News earlier in the day, he said, “It seems to me that this whole bridge thing reinforces a narrative that’s troublesome about the guy, he’s kind of a bully.”
But just an hour later, when asked by Roll Call about the New Jersey scandal, Graham changed his tune. He said he had not seen any of Christie’s news conference before he made his statements to NBC and that the governor’s performance before the media altered his original position.
“He did something very seldom done in politics. He stood up and took responsibility and I think he handled the situation about as well as he could have handled it. … I was quite impressed,” Graham said. When pressed on his earlier remarks, the South Carolina Republican said, “I had heard about the allegations. They reinforce a narrative that wouldn’t play well in the South and other places.”
Other elected officials warned not to read too much into what happened in 2013 when gauging 2016 prospects.
Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., said he watched part of Christie’s news conference Thursday. “I think he’s still a contender,” said Burr, who added that he’s learned not to make predictions about national elections years in advance.
As governor, Christie earned the reputation for working with Democrats on some specific issues. He famously caught flak for touring hurricane-devastated New Jersey beaches with President Barack Obama days before the 2012 election. And he’s cut a spoof Internet video with Booker.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said Democrats would continue to work with Christie when it was in their interest, even after the scandal in which traffic on a major thoroughfare was paralyzed in alleged response to a Democratic mayor’s failure to endorse the governor.
“I think Democrats will work with the governor whenever people’s interests are involved, and when they differ, they’ll differ,” Menendez said. “Evidently anyone who was involved in the administration who conducted reprisals, political reprisals, they should be fired. So those are actions I’d expect the governor to take.”