The departure of Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC)
ranking Republican Richard Lugar
(R-IN) from Congress will cause a reshuffle of foreign policy leadership in the
GOP Senate caucus and could thrust Sen. Bob
Corker (R-TN) into a prominent role.
With Lugar losing his primary on Tuesday to Indiana
State Treasurer Richard Mourdock,
the position of top Republican on SFRC is set be to be vacant. The next three
senators in line for that spot are Corker, James
Risch (R-ID), and Marco Rubio
(R-FL), in that order. With the possibility that Republicans could retake the
senate in November, Lugar's successor on the committee could become chairman.
Either way, the new top Republican on the committee will fundamentally change the
character of the panel.
Lugar was known for his statesman-like approach, his
deep attention to several specific issues such as nuclear non-proliferation,
and his willingness to work with the administration and Democrats, for example
on big projects like the New START nuclear reduction treaty with Russia.
Perhaps due to his bipartisan character when it came to foreign policy, he was
somewhat marginalized toward the end of his tenure by a caucus leadership that
was determined to take a more combative and partisan approach to dealing with
the Obama administration.
"While Dick and I didn't always agree on everything,
I found during my time in the Senate that he was often willing to reach across
the aisle and get things done," President Barack
Obama said in a statement Tuesday evening.
As his primary campaign heated up, Lugar became
distinctly more cautious on foreign policy matters, perhaps in recognition of
the fact that his advocacy for New START, one of the administration's premier
foreign policy projects, had hurt him politically inside the party. Lugar
staunchly opposed the intervention in Libya last year and is firmly against the
United States getting more deeply involved in the Syrian crisis now.
Behind the scenes, Lugar's staff is hugely active on
a range of foreign policy issues. Not quite as bipartisan as Lugar himself, the
GOP minority staff at SFRC butts heads with the majority staff at times. The
personal relationship between Lugar and chairman John Kerry (D-MA) has always been cordial in public, although some
say less cordial in private.
When Lugar leaves, the most likely choice to replace
Lugar is Corker, a Tennessee businessman who like Lugar, opposed the war in
Libya and opposes intervention in Syria. But Corker's foreign policy stance is
even more wary of using U.S. power in foreign lands. He said earlier this year
he doesn't even believe the Syrian revolution is about "democracy."
Corker was on the fence during much of the New START
debate. He felt the treaty wasn't very significant in terms of nuclear
reductions, and used the negotiations within Congress more as chance to secure
funding for nuclear facilities, some of which are in his state. Corker is very
effective at defending funds for nuclear modernization and stockpile
Corker doesn't have a firm position on what to do in
Afghanistan and he wasn't particularly vocal on the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. He's seen on Capitol Hill as someone would
have a bit of a learning curve ahead of him were he to become SFRC chairman or
Behind the scenes, Corker has a very active foreign
policy staff that is said by Hill sources to not get along well with Lugar's
staff. If Corker takes over as lead Republican on the committee, there could be
a house cleaning on the staff side.
But Corker's accession is not assured. The Republican
committee members have the power to vote for whomever they want. In fact, after
the 2010 election, there was an effort to vote Lugar out of the ranking
member's position, but Lugar prevailed by a slim margin.
For some Republicans both on and off Capitol Hill,
Corker is seen as neither aggressive nor hawkish enough on key foreign policy issues.
"It's difficult to make the case that someone
who doesn't even see the merits of the fall of Bashar al-Assad for American
interests deserves to have the top Republican spot on the committee," said one
GOP foreign policy pundit. "There are other Republicans, such as Sen. Rubio,
who have advocated a much more coherent and thoughtful foreign policy vision
that might make them more appealing replacements for Sen. Lugar."
Rubio has laid out a foreign policy vision that
tracks more closely with hawks like Sens. John
McCain (R-AZ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ),
and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). He is
also seen as a rising star on foreign policy in the party and an SFRC chairmanship
could bolster Rubio's national security bona fides ahead of a possible 2016
In the end, Corker might not even want the job. He
is also currently in line to take over the top Republican spot on the banking
committee, currently held by Richard Shelby (R-AL), who is barred by the rules from continuing on in that role due to committee term limits. If Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the ranking member on the finance committee loses his election, then Shelby's presumptive successor Mike Crapo (R-ID) would move over to take the top GOP spot on the finance committee, leaving Corker as the top Republican on banking.
Corker might prefer banking over SFRC -- and
he can't chair both. Risch also has several possibilities for chairmanships
that next year that could change the game on who gets moved up at SFRC.
In the end, some of Lugar's Senate colleagues said
that his defeat showed the shrinking room for moderates in the Senate and the
lowering national tolerance for those whose focus is beyond America's shores.
"There are people ideologically driven on the right
and the left who want to pick up seats, look at what happened to Sen.
Lieberman," said Graham in a short interview. "The lesson to be learned is vote
your conscience and if you're an incumbent, you better not lose touch with
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images