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Big changes coming post election to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

After tonight’s election, the division of power inside the Senate is set to shift dramatically — and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) could see a huge change in its makeup, with an influx of new, young GOP members and the exit of some top committee Democrats. If Republicans gain seats in the Senate, as ...

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After tonight’s election, the division of power inside the Senate is set to shift dramatically — and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) could see a huge change in its makeup, with an influx of new, young GOP members and the exit of some top committee Democrats.

If Republicans gain seats in the Senate, as is widely expected, several GOP senators  are expected to move off of the Foreign Relations Committee as assignments are reorganized according to new party ratios and new pecking orders of seniority. Several Democratic senators who serve as subcommittee chairmen could also lose their races, further altering the committee’s makeup and its agenda.

SFRC is one of the oldest bodies in the Senate, established in 1816 when committees were first invented. As such, it holds an elevated status as what’s known as a "Select A" committee, along with Appropriations, Finance, and Armed Services. Each senator can only hold one "Select A" assignment at a time, unless an exemption is granted, as is the case with Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Roger Wicker (R-MS), who all concurrently serve on the Armed Services Committee as well as the Foreign Relations Committee.

It’s an open secret on Capitol Hill that of the four "Select A" committees, SFRC is typically considered the least desirable. Although the committee has an aggressive agenda of foreign policy-related legislation, it does not hold much payoff in terms of domestic political benefit or fundraising potential. The panel sets authorizations for State and Foreign ops funding, but appropriators actually dole out the money. The committee’s other two functions are to confirm nominees and approve the occasional treaty, such as the New START agreement with Russia.

For all these reasons, several GOP members are looking to leave SFRC when their seniority level rises due to the influx of new Republican senators. Those said to be eyeing the exit door include Sens. Johnny Isaacson (R-GA), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Jim DeMint (R-SC).

"Because the Foreign Relations Committee really doesn’t do a lot beyond nominations and the infrequent treaty, Republican members who are junior are going to look to get off that committee and go to other exclusive committees," said one senior GOP senate aides.

Nobody knows for sure who will get to join the committee because the process is so unpredictable and the negotiations are all conducted behind closed doors. But the committee leadership is hoping that the new members come in with the spirit of compromise.

"The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has operated traditionally in a bipartisan manner, taking national security matters beyond politics. We would expect that to continue," said SFRC spokesman Frederick Jones.

Whether that expectation will be shared by the committee’s potential incoming members is an open question. GOP Senate candidates have largely focused on domestic matters during their campaigns, and only Delaware GOP candidate Christine O’Donnell, who is not expected to win, has expressed a desire to join SFRC.

But the conservative, anti-administration tendencies of several potential new GOP senators could make the committee’s coming debates on issues like Iran, nuclear proliferation, Israel, and foreign aid a whole lot more animated. Potential new members could include candidates Jim Miller (R-AL), John Raese (R-WV), Carly Fiorina (R-CA), or Sharon Angle (R-NV).

For example, Raese has announced his opposition to the New START treaty,  while potentially departing committee members Corker and Isaacson voted for it. Angle has been mum on foreign policy other than to say that "that we must do whatever necessary to protect America from terrorism."

"A Senator Angle on foreign relations could be fun," said another GOP Senate aide who is hoping for a committee that takes a more active role opposing President Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

There may be big changes on the Democratic side of the committee as well. Sens. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Ted Kaufman (D-DE) are retiring, and Sens. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) are both facing very tough challenges. Dodd and Feingold are the second- and third-ranking Democrats on the committee, respectively, and their departure could change the committee’s agenda significantly. Feingold, for example, has pressed for a flexible timetable to bring troops home from Afghanistan, and has been a critic of some of the administration’s nuclear civilian agreements and efforts to loosen international export controls.

Boxer, as chairwoman of the subcommittee on international operations and organizations, human rights, democracy, and global women’s issues, has championed such bills as the International Violence Against Women Act, which could come up in committee during the post-election lame duck session or next year. Anti-abortion senators are set to oppose parts of the bill that fund organizations that support choice.

Additionally, if the party ratios in the Senate shift as is widely expected, Democrats will have fewer seats on each committee, and some current SFRC members will be forced to step aside. Will Asia subcommittee chair Jim Webb (D-VA) have to give up his seat and serve on only one exclusive committee? What about Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who is active on nuclear issues? He is said to be eyeing the appropriations seat left vacant by departing Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter.

On Nov. 15, when returning and new senators come to Washington, behind-the-scenes negotiations to resolve these issues will commence. The Senate Democratic and Republican leadership will first negotiate and then agree to ratios for all the committees. The leaders will then work with their caucus members to divide up the spoils.

On the GOP side, that means Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), who leads the formal process, will have the most influence. "This is an example of where McConnell actually has a lot of clout," one GOP aide explained. Seniority is important, but it’s not the only consideration that the leadership will take into account — personalities as well as personal interests will also influence their decision making, as with Webb and his experience dealing with Asia. "It’s all done senator to senator," the aide explained.

On the Democratic side, the process could take much longer if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) loses his seat, and a leadership fight breaks out between Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Dick Durbin (D-IL). The process could be delayed even further if there are elections still pending due to recounts or run-off elections in three candidate races such as Florida or Alaska.

All of this spells uncertainty for the makeup of SFRC and the path forward for its agenda under the leadership of Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).

"At this point, it’s still up in the air who will sit on the committee; it’s yet to be determined," said SFRC spokesman Jones.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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