When it comes to foreign policy, the eight Republicans who sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the 113th Congress are all over the map — a microcosm, in many ways, of today’s fragmented GOP.
As Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the committee, observed this week, “We’ve got everything from highly engaged internationalists to realists on the committee, and . . . there’s different degrees of that” realism.
Corker argues that such a range is not necessarily a problem, predicting that the strong and diverse viewpoints on his side of the dais will reinvigorate a panel that has grown increasingly marginalized on Capitol Hill in recent years. But the diversity of views also risks creating more dysfunction, with committee infighting bogging down the legislative agenda, including some members’ aim of restarting the State Department authorization process.
The sheer variety of Republican opinion on today’s hot-button international issues was on display last week at two high-profile committee hearings.
Corker attempted to focus on the big picture out of the militant attack in Benghazi, Libya, at the panel’s Jan. 23 hearing with departing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “I think this is an opportunity for us to examine the systemic failures” of the State Department, he said in his opening remarks, as well as “to develop a foreign policy that reflects again the dynamics of the region as they really are today.”
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of four new Republicans on the committee, took the opposite tack, zeroing in on exactly when the State Department spoke to the evacuees from the U.S. compound in Benghazi and why that hadn’t been done sooner.
“A simple phone call to those evacuees to determine what happened would have ascertained immediately that there was no protest,” Johnson told Clinton, rehashing a recurring GOP attack on the Obama administration, which initially asserted that the attack emerged from local protests against an anti-Muslim video.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., used his first appearance on the committee to question whether the State Department is even “capable of being in a war zone” at all. And he peppered his remarks with specific dollar figures to emphasize the costs of various State Department programs. “Maybe you’re not aware,” Paul told Clinton, “that your department spent $100,000 on three comedians who went to India on a promotional tour called ‘Make Chai Not War.’ ”
The next day, at Sen. John Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be secretary of State, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., pushed for a different approach, chiding the Obama administration for not being more engaged in Libya after the fall of longtime dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, which he claimed was at the root of the Benghazi attack.
Individual political aspirations further color the GOP side of the committee — Paul and Rubio are being hyped as potential 2016 presidential candidates, while Johnson has an eye on the Senate leadership ladder.
Then, of course, there is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, in many ways the Senate Republicans’ elder statesman on foreign policy even though he is, in effect, a freshman on the Foreign Relations Committee (he joined it just this year). His advocacy for more muscular intervention in Syria — which he pushed Kerry on last week — and elsewhere has set him apart from most of the rest of his caucus.
“All of that adds energy and interest to the committee itself,” Corker says of those disparate outlooks. “It’s been — let’s face it — pretty dull. So I’m glad to have active members and have strong opinions about what ought to be happening.”
One of the things Corker would like to see the committee dive into is an authorization bill, which would outline the legal parameters for State Department and foreign aid programs. He said last week that the “importance of having a full authorization” was one of his three takeaways from the hearing with Clinton. “I think it would be very edifying for the committee to go through that process,” Corker added Monday. “I don’t think people have any idea of all the things the State Department is involved in, and that’s not appropriate — that’s what we should be doing.”
Other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are also on board. McCain this week called such legislation “vital.”
“In order to make the Foreign Relations Committee relevant, we have to do an authorization bill,” he said. “Otherwise, it makes the appropriators the only relevant body.”
And according to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., “there’s a fair amount of unanimity among both Democrats and Republicans that this would be a good thing.”
Ultimately, Corker acknowledged, the decision to push forward with such legislation will be up to Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is expected to succeed Kerry as Foreign Relations chairman once the Massachusetts Democrat departs Friday afternoon for Foggy Bottom. Menendez’s office did not reply to an inquiry about the senator’s support for an authorization bill.
But he may well be deterred by the failures of past chairmen — roughly a decade has passed since Congress succeeded in enacting State Department authorization legislation.
In the 112th Congress, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., took a stab at it, introducing a far-reaching bill that touched on most aspects of American foreign policy. After a 29-hour committee markup, the bill went nowhere, a victim of the crowded floor schedule and of leadership’s desire to avoid contested issues like funding for family-planning services overseas and bilateral relations with Pakistan. Those issues come up in appropriations bills as well, but in recent years that legislation has been rolled into an omnibus bill, with no floor debate.
Shaheen said Tuesday that “it remains to be seen” whether the broad spectrum of ideologies on Foreign Relations will hinder the panel as it tries to move legislation.
“But listen, it’s going to be tough anyway,” she said of authorizing legislation. “I think the sooner we can engage on it and the more people who are included in that process, hopefully the better it will move.”
Corker, for his part, says he’s not worried that the lack of cohesion among Republicans will hurt his ability to craft an agenda as the Foreign Relations ranking member.
“I don’t look at it as my agenda, anyway,” he said. “I’d rather have a committee that debates things vigorously than have a committee where people don’t show up and just don’t care.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.