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
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
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."