Corrected 4:40 p.m.| With longtime House Democrat Eliot L. Engel trailing badly in the ballot counting in his primary race for New York's 16th District, a real competition could break out to succeed him as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Assuming that Democrats hold the House in November, as appears likely, Engel’s successor to lead the panel wouldn’t be formally named until January. But the behind-the-scenes jockeying already has begun.
Multiple factors are at play in choosing Eliot’s successor, including seniority, degree of involvement in committee work, personal popularity within the broader Democratic caucus, diversity and stands on individual foreign policy issues.
Rep. Brad Sherman of California has the most seniority on the committee and is expected to pursue the gavel after years of active work on the panel, particularly on nuclear policy issues. But he deferred for now while the votes are still being counted in New York.
“Eliot is a good friend,” Sherman said in an interview. “I was very supportive of his efforts to be reelected. I’m in touch with him and I believe in counting all of the ballots.”
Second to Sherman in seniority is Rep. Gregory W. Meeks of New York, whose committee focus has been on European issues. He is co-chairman of the European Union Caucus.
Meeks declined in an interview to say whether he would run for the chairmanship while the race between Engel and his challenger, Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal, has yet to be officially called.
“You don’t call races until such time as every vote is counted,” said Meeks, noting he has worked on many issues with Engel, who is white and was endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus over Bowman, who is Black. “You don’t just turn your back on folks when you were partners."
But neither Sherman nor Meeks is popular with the rising progressive foreign policy wing of the Democratic Party.
In fact, progressives are hoping that Rep. Karen Bass of California can be induced to throw her hat into the ring even though she is sixth in seniority on the committee.
Bass, who is reportedly being vetted as a vice presidential pick by the campaign of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, last week said she did not plan to seek the committee gavel, according to a Hill staffer who overheard the remark but asked not to be quoted discussing sensitive House dynamics.
The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, a panel of committee chairs and members appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will meet in the weeks after the November election to hear from the candidates and vote on their recommendations for Foreign Affairs chairman.
The Steering Committee considers seniority on the committee heavily, along with factors such as gender, race and fundraising ability. The full caucus would then vote on a candidate.
“Whoever ends up as chair is going to have a really challenging task next session,” said Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission and mobilization at Catholic Relief Services, one of the U.S. government’s largest foreign aid contractors. “Addressing the post-COVID … world and looking at the nexus between COVID and climate and racism and the vulnerability of people around the world who have been disproportionately [affected] by each and all of these challenges.”
O’Keefe, who regularly testifies before Congress, said he would like to see the next Foreign Affairs chairman hold more oversight hearings to better ensure the executive branch is spending State-Foreign Operations money in accord with lawmakers’ intent and direction.
“The role of the committee in oversight needs to be strengthened," he said.
2012 election haunts Sherman
Though Sherman had the most seniority on House Foreign Affairs, the last time Democrats held a leadership competition, he lost, in large part because of bad blood over the rancorous 2012 election.
In that race, Sherman decisively defeated Rep. Howard Berman — a close ally to Pelosi — to represent California’s San Fernando Valley. Berman was then the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee and a long-serving and influential member of his party. But statewide redistricting forced him into a race against Sherman where the redrawn district heavily favored constituents from Sherman’s former district.
After the bruising campaign against Berman, Sherman withdrew from the contest to replace Berman as Foreign Affairs ranking member after Engel, the No. 3 Democrat on the panel at the time, was able to gain the support of a majority of its Democratic members.
As a senior Democrat on the committee, Sherman is known for his caustic critiques of the Trump administration’s foreign policy — frequently even sharper than Engel’s. In fact, the 12-term lawmaker was one of the first Democrats to introduce articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump in June 2017.
But during the Obama administration, Sherman also proved he was willing to criticize a Democratic White House, which he did repeatedly. He opposed Obama's nuclear deal with Iran and fought Obama's proposed Trans-Pacific partnership trade pact.
Sherman will push for chair
“I think Sherman would be the first to admit he is going to advocate hard for [chairman],” said a House Democratic staffer, who requested anonymity in discussing a sensitive subject. “I think he would be a great chairman and he is a team player, but I don’t think he is taking anything for granted.”
For years, Sherman was the ranking member and then briefly the chairman in 2019 of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation. But the former tax attorney gave up that chairmanship in January to instead lead the Financial Services subcommittee on Investor Protection.
It is unclear whether that decision will hurt his chances at winning the Foreign Affairs gavel. That’s because the Democratic member with the next highest seniority on the committee, Meeks, also gave up his chance at a Foreign Affairs subcommittee chairmanship in January 2019 to lead the Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee.
Despite his high seniority on Foreign Affairs and past tenure as a subcommittee ranking member, Meeks has only sponsored two foreign policy-related measures during the Trump administration, and both were nonbinding symbolic resolutions.
In that same time frame, Sherman has sponsored 16 foreign policy-related measures and during his year as Asia-Pacific subcommittee head, Sherman convened nine hearings
Black Caucus seeking diversity
With Black Lives Matters protests dominating national attention, correcting racial injustices has become a top priority for the Democratic grassroots. Against that backdrop, maintaining diversity in Democratic leadership has taken on added salience.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee has never had a Black chairman. Were Meeks to ascend to the top of the committee, it could serve as a signal of positive change.
“CBC rightfully wants more chairs,” said the Democratic staffer.
Another factor is that Meeks has a more conciliatory reputation than Sherman, which has some Republicans rooting for him to succeed Engel. House Foreign Affairs is one of the last Capitol Hill committees to maintain a reputation for bipartisan work, even under the highly polarized climate of the Trump years.
“My view is that Meeks has an inside track,” said a former House Republican staffer, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly. “In this moment, everyone is looking at these issues of diversity and inclusion. Certainly Mr. Meeks has more than enough credentials on these issues and has the support of CBC and the support of his Republican colleagues.”
Working against Meeks are old ethics questions that on at least three occasions — most recently in 2013 — landed him on the left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s list of the Most Corrupt Members of Congress.
The ethics issues stem from allegations that the 11-term lawmaker accepted improper gifts and loans, was involved with charities under federal investigation, and took actions on behalf of a convicted campaign donor.
Both Meeks and Sherman have been endorsed in their reelection campaigns by Pro-Israel America, a new political action group with various connections to the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.
Correction: This report has been revised to reflect Rep. Gregory Meeks' previous ranking member status on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy and the Environment.