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Menendez, whose parents moved from Cuba to New York in 1953, also is expected to raise the profile of human rights abuses by the Castro regime in Cuba. Representing a major Cuban-American community in New Jersey, he has been an outspoken opponent of any moves to ease relations with Havana — something that could complicate any efforts by the Obama administration to reach out to Cuba in its second term.
The committee’s dynamics are going to change whether or not Kerry leaves. It’s losing ranking Republican Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the Senate’s elder statesman in diplomatic and national security issues, who lost his primary this year and is leaving at the end of the 112th Congress. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who has been more skeptical of key administration policies on Libya and Syria, for example, is expected to take his spot.
Another major change to the committee could come if Republican John McCain of Arizona joins its ranks. An outspoken voice who has pushed for more active intervention in Libya and Syria, as well for more muscular action to rein in Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, McCain has said he would like to join the panel. He will step down next year as ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee because of GOP term limits.
For the past two decades, the Foreign Relations panel has been known for an unusual degree of bipartisan cooperation, and Kerry has followed that model. During his tenure as chairman, Kerry joined forces with Lugar to concentrate on non-proliferation issues. Together they shepherded the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty through the Senate in 2010, further limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads. The two also pushed through a multi-billion-dollar economic aid package to Pakistan.
Kerry also decided to wait until after the elections to hold any open hearings on the security mishaps surrounding the September attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, where U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. He said he wanted to allow the State Department to conclude an independent review, which is due this month.
The Obama administration could well decide it cannot afford to lose Kerry’s calming presence and foreign policy expertise in the Senate. Kerry has been a member of the panel since 1985. Since taking over the chairmanship in 2009, he has also served as an unofficial troubleshooter for Obama, who has sent him to resolve thorny diplomatic issues in a number of hot spots.
For example, he was sent to Afghanistan in October 2009 to advance presidential elections after opponents of President Hamid Karzai attributed his victory to voter fraud. After spending hours talking with Karzai, Kerry finally convinced him to hold a runoff election. At the time, Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said Kerry’s diplomatic skills, knowledge of the region and determination were “decisive.”
At Obama’s request, Kerry went to Pakistan to secure the release in early 2011 of CIA contractor Ray Davis, who was jailed after shooting several Pakistanis who reportedly tried to rob him. He also helped broker a peace agreement between Sudan and newly independent South Sudan.