This year's election will likely usher in major changes in Congress on foreign policy and national security, regardless of which party ends up on top once all the ballots are counted and the winners declared.
Pollsters don't expect a sea change in either branch of Congress this year. According to the Real Clear Politics website, which compiles polling data on every race, Democrats have 46 safe or non-contested Senate seats heading into the election, compared with the Republicans' 43, with 11 races classified as "toss ups." RCP's House polling discounts virtually any possibility that Democrats could take over there. The site's average "generic ballot" shows that Republicans have half a percentage-point lead among voters in general, further suggesting that there will be no major shift in the balance of power on Capitol Hill.
But several key committee leadership posts are changing hands, influential leaders are exiting Washington, and a new crop of national security lawmakers is looking to fill their void. The result could be a Congress that has less experience and fewer incentives to work across the aisle or cooperate with the executive branch, playing an increasing role of the spoiler in foreign policy.
A number of influential senators are leaving at the end of this year. When they depart, Congress could lose much of the expertise that they and their staffs have accumulated over decades of service. In the House, both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) could change, as could the GOP leadership slot on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) will have at least one new leader, and maybe two, by the end of 2013.
"There are several lawmakers leaving who had been a leading voice on several foreign policy issues over a long period of time," a senior Senate foreign-policy staffer told The Cable. "It's not just the institutional knowledge; it's the relationships they have around the world as well. The Senate's going to be a profoundly different place without them."
One retiring senator with outsized influence is Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who played a leading role in Republican attempts to thwart President Obama's nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
"One senator can make a difference in this system and when that senator dies, retires, or is defeated, that could have a big impact. Such will be the case with Jon Kyl," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World (CLW), which advocates on issues related to nuclear proliferation.
CLW has been on the opposite side of Kyl on issues including missile defense, nuclear weapons, arms control, and several other topics. The council is also raising funds for several Democratic House and Senate candidates around the country.
But Isaacs has a grudging respect for his chief adversary. "Kyl really was an expert on nuclear weapons and he was effective. He almost single-handedly defeated the Congressional Test Ban Treaty in 1999," Isaacs said. "The anti-arms control crowd will suffer a real loss."
Kyl not only led the GOP caucus on missile defense and nuclear weapons, he used his leadership position to head the opposition to New START in 2010 and he was a key critic of the Russian "reset." His office often held up State Department nominees. Under Obama, he has generally steered the GOP caucus toward confrontation with the White House, commandeering issues away from the ranking Republican on the SFRC Richard Lugar (R-IN), who was more amenable to crossing the aisle.
Lugar won't be returning next year either, as he lost his primary race to Richard Murdouk, who is locked in a tight race with Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-IN). Lugar dutifully led the more realist and less interventionist side of the caucus; he opposed the war in Libya and opposes more U.S. involvement in Syria. Perhaps due to his bipartisan inclinations on foreign policy, he was somewhat marginalized toward the end of his tenure by his own party leadership.
Lugar with likely be replaced as the SFRC's ranking member by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who broadly shares Lugar's worldview but is still building his expertise. "Lugar's a symbol of the way things used to be, bipartisan crossing lines and working with Democrats," Isaacs said, referring to the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program and Lugar's support for New START. "Corker seems to a pragmatist somewhat in the mold of Lugar."
The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), is also retiring this year. Also leaving the Senate are SFRC Asia Subcommittee Chairman and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb (D-VA), who was hugely active on issues such as Burma and U.S. force structure in Korea and Japan, and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), the longtime former chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee and current chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Government Management.
There's no clear replacement for the role that Webb and Lieberman played on Asia-Pacific issues. Both traveled to the region often and those relationships need to be maintained, staffers say.
"The question in the next Congress will be who steps in and fills that leadership role," the senior Senate staffer said.
On the Democratic side of the SFRC, if President Barack Obama is reelected, Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) stands a chance of being nominated to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton next year. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who would have SFRC seniority, would likely decline the chairmanship to hold on to her chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The next Democrat in line would be Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who is running for his second full term in the Senate this year. Menendez is largely progressive but has been known to challenge the administration regarding his three most prized issues: Cuba, Iran, and the Armenian Genocide. Should he be reelected, Menendez would be in a position for press for Iran sanctions more than the administration wants, and he would likely thwart any progress on changing U.S. policy toward Cuba.
One often overlooked wrinkle on the SFRC: If Obama wins a second term and appoints Kerry secretary of state, Massachusetts would hold a special election. If Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) loses to Elizabeth Warren next week, he would the clear frontrunner for Kerry's vacated seat, if he decided to run again. So there's a political risk in appointing Kerry secretary of state.
There may even be more changes coming on the SFRC, because its members often seek to exit the once-prized panel. The SFRC is perceived on the Hill as the weakest of the "Class A" committees, as it has no real control over money and no domestic constituency.
"It tends to be a dumping ground for senators who can't get on other committees that they want," said Isaacs. "That's too bad, but that's the way it is."
At the Senate Armed Services Committee, ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) has reached his term limit and will have to forgo his committee post if the Democrats retain control of the chamber (though he could keep it if Republicans take power). That would likely elevate Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) to the committee leadership spot, which might spell doom for Kerry's personal passion, ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which Inhofe has pledged to prevent. McCain, a former Navy pilot, was amenable to at least debating the agreement.
A set of younger and newer senators are moving to fill the foreign-policy gap left by the departure of the veterans. On the GOP side, emerging leaders including Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Mark Kirk (R-IL). Under McCain's tutelage, Ayotte has been delving into the nuclear portfolio and national security budgeting. Kirk is already a Senate leader on Iran and Israel, with a particular focus on sanctions.
For the Democrats, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) has used his SFRC Africa Subcommittee Chairmanship to its potential. He's a Swahili-speaking, tough-on-Iran lawmaker who occupies the seat once held by vice president and former SFRC chairman Joe Biden. Sen. Bob Casey, as head of the SFRC's Middle East subcommittee, is also becoming more and more active.
As for the House, where Republicans have spent the past two years passing bills that die waiting for Senate action, the GOP is virtually assured to hold onto the gavel.
A few changes are in the works. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has reached her term limit and cannot be chairwoman again next year. In one of the most bitter races, ranking member Howard Berman (D-CA) is trailing fellow Democrat Brad Sherman heading into the final days of the campaign. The competition to fill the vacancies at both leadership posts would play out after the new session begins next year.
But it's the Senate, through its influence over the nominating process, that truly matters.
According to James Lindsay, vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, power is moving away from committee chairs and toward individual senators. A single senator's ability to thwart a major piece of legislation or place a hold on a nominee empowers senators like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), who use their hold power liberally and are generally unmoved by the ire of their colleagues.
"Congress far less often shapes policy in a positive direction. Their main method of effectiveness is to say ‘no,'" Lindsay said. "The greatest impact will be with those who are willing to use their ability to slow things down."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.