Lugar Gets His Moment
After Long Wait, He Wields Foreign Relations Gavel at Pivotal Time
With President Bush being pulled in two foreign policy directions by a running feud within his Cabinet, Hill insiders believe that Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) has a chance to step into the breach and restore the luster of the oft-ignored Senate panel.
“This is his moment, and I think he’ll step up to it,” said Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the panel’s ranking member. “The split within the administration presents an opportunity for the committee to weigh in on the national debate and hopefully influence the president.”
The effort may feel a bit like déjà vu for Lugar, who briefly chaired the panel from 1985 to 1986 and notably took a very public role in opposition to South Africa’s practice of racial apartheid.
“It makes him uniquely suited to revive for the second time the Foreign Relations Committee,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, Lugar’s former chief of staff, said in an interview. “He must feel as if he’s giving CPR to the same patient twice.”
Lugar’s opposition to South African apartheid and a well-publicized push to override President Ronald Reagan’s veto of a sanctions bill led then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to assert his seniority and knock Lugar out of the top spot on Foreign Relations. So for the past 16 years, Lugar chafed as his colleague took the panel in a far different direction.
Lugar now has a chorus of cheerleaders on both sides of the aisle urging him to use his sober but determined style to help repair the growing rift in Washington over the direction of the United States’ role in the world.
Indeed, the landscape appears to be ripe for the quietly ambitious Lugar, a man who is still looking to make his mark on history after an unsuccessful attempt to become Majority Leader in the 1980s, two snubs by his party for the vice presidential nomination, and a failed 1996 run for the presidency.
“The forces that are now in play in the world and the force of events put the Foreign Relations Committee at essentially the center of the universe,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), who is just behind Lugar in GOP seniority on the panel. “I think Senator Lugar can make a tremendous contribution.”
The notion of Lugar attempting to re- establish the primacy of the panel as a foreign policy force is slightly ironic considering that earlier this year he attempted to exempt his panel from internal GOP Conference rules that prevent its members from serving on the Appropriations, Finance and Armed Services panels. Lugar complained he was losing interested lawmakers to the much more powerful and influential committees.
But with reconstruction of Iraq just beginning, new tensions with North Korea over the development of nuclear weapons, and continuing efforts to combat terrorism in Afghanistan and other places around the world, lawmakers say Senate Republicans’ original rationale for making the panel part of the exclusive “Super A” committee club could make a comeback.
Not uncharacteristically, Lugar demurred when asked about his potential to reinvigorate the panel. And he sought to downplay any suggestion that he may split with President Bush on key issues, just as he opposed the Reagan administration.
“I feel I’m a strong friend of the president’s,” Lugar said. “I’m attempting to follow through in the best way I can with the responsibilities of the Foreign Relations Committee. That’s my role, as a friend of the family, not necessarily uncritically, but as a friend.”
Lugar’s road to re-establishing Congress’ foreign policy role is filled with obstacles, not the least of which is a Senate GOP leadership that may be eager to bask in Bush’s war victory and could be reluctant to challenge the president’s prerogatives around the world.
“It’s going to be very hard for him, because he’s not likely to get the support of the [Senate] leadership,” said one Democratic Senator who asked not to be named.
Lugar has already been a lonely GOP critic of the Bush administration’s reluctance to share with Congress its post-war plans for Iraq. Lugar has also been a softer critic of the administration’s lack of engagement with North Korea and even went further than most State Department officials by insisting that using military force against the communist country should not be ruled out.
Biden noted that without support from the leadership, Lugar also could have trouble convincing his colleagues to follow his lead.
“Some of my Republican friends are going to have to be willing to be at odds with the administration,” said Biden. “It’s going to be hard for them.”
Hagel also acknowledged that the Senate GOP leadership could be an obstacle to Lugar. But Hagel, himself a sometime critic of the administration’s foreign policy, noted that Lugar tutored Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in foreign policy when Frist sat on the panel until he gave it up this year for a seat on Finance.
Hagel noted that Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also has a strong foreign policy background as chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.
“Maybe philosophically, some leaders don’t agree with Lugar on foreign policy,” said Hagel. “But he has strong relations with the Democrats on the committee and with Democrats generally.”
Hagel added that Lugar also gets along well with House International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and the panel’s ranking member, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.). “I think that puts Lugar in a pretty strong position,” he said.
But Lugar’s critics privately contend that he could be too loyal to the administration.
“I think he’s ambitious, but some [lawmakers] are more bold,” said one Senate Democratic aide. “They mix ambition with a willingness to take risks. Lugar isn’t a risk-taker.”
This staffer complained that Lugar prematurely abandoned an Iraq war resolution that he crafted with Biden last year when he felt he was out-maneuvered by the White House.
But Daniels said the chairman’s solid history of supporting Republican ideals would actually help him to reinvigorate the panel.
“He becomes more effective on those occasions when he does want to steer the debate, because he’s got a lot of capital within the party,” said Daniels. “It’s not that he’s risk-averse. He wants to spend his time on things he believes he has a chance to affect.”
Lugar also must overcome the decades of near-irrelevancy that critics claim the panel suffered under Helms, who used the panel as a lightning rod for social issues and his single-minded quest against the United Nations.
“Congress has a lot of deficiencies in foreign policy,” said former International Relations Chairman Lee Hamilton (R-Ind.), who now serves as director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Congress has been timid. They clearly turned over their power to the president. They deferred on their constitutional power.”
Still, Hamilton noted that Lugar was the last person to successfully defy a popular president of his own party, when Lugar convinced Republicans in 1986 to override Reagan’s veto on a South Africa sanctions bill. Before that, the Foreign Relations panel had not been as much of a force in foreign policy since it “changed the course of American foreign policy” during the Vietnam War, Hamilton said.
Plotting what appears to be a slow but deliberate course for the committee, Lugar already has floated the notion of asserting Congress’ authorizing powers by crafting a bill that would guide the U.S. reconstruction of Iraq. That idea has been seized upon by Hyde, who plans to draft a bill in the next few weeks, according to a spokesman.
Lugar also has grand plans for overhauling the State Department to make it more nimble, a plan that he floated in January — long before ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) caused a ruckus by urging a State Department shakeup last week.
“In the war on terror, you do need to be tooled differently than you were for the Cold War,” said Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher. “The State Department has not had perhaps the focus it’s needed over the years. But with an activist chairman in the Senate, it’s finally going to get it.”
Lugar’s plan includes boosting pay for diplomats in dangerous countries, giving diplomats better language skills and better overall training, beefing up the State Department’s ability to affect public sentiment around the world, and hiring more staff for the State Department-run U.S. Agency for International Development, which has jurisdiction over much of the reconstruction effort in both post-war Iraq and post-Taliban Afghanistan.
Some of that plan, such as a 4 percent overall funding increase for the department, is included in this year’s State Department authorization bill, which could come to the Senate floor as early as this week.
As for the rift between the State and Defense departments, Lugar may weigh in on that dispute as well.
“If there is such a perceived problem, we may very well see it corrected by Congress,” Fisher noted. “It may be some authorization that the administration isn’t necessarily looking for that could clear the lines of communication.”
Lugar also hopes to accomplish what has been impossible for chairmen of both parties since 1986 — passing a foreign aid authorization bill. In fact, Lugar was the last person to achieve the feat, which has been complicated for the past two decades by efforts to curtail abortions abroad as well as the parochial interests of lawmakers.
“It would greatly enhance the status of the committee to pass a foreign aid bill,” said Hamilton.
But lawmakers and foreign policy experts say Lugar’s greatest contribution to foreign policy is not likely to come through passing legislation. Rather, they say, hearings that highlight the needs and deficiencies of the reconstruction efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as diplomatic efforts regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons threat, could have the biggest impact on both public sentiment and the administration.
Hagel noted that last summer, with Biden as chairman, the press was largely silent on the question of what the United States’ responsibilities would be to a post-war Iraq until Biden started having hearings.
“Hearings are essential,” said Biden. “Hearings on the Middle East will have a much bigger impact. That doesn’t mean that if we do the legislative portion of our responsibility well that that won’t enhance our abilities on policy objectives, however.”