What Lugar’s loss means for foreign policy in the Senate
The departure of Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) from Congress will cause a reshuffle of foreign policy leadership in the GOP Senate caucus and could thrust Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) into a prominent role. With Lugar losing his primary on Tuesday to Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, the position of ...
The departure of Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) from Congress will cause a reshuffle of foreign policy leadership in the GOP Senate caucus and could thrust Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) into a prominent role.
With Lugar losing his primary on Tuesday to Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, the position of top Republican on SFRC is set be to be vacant. The next three senators in line for that spot are Corker, James Risch (R-ID), and Marco Rubio (R-FL), in that order. With the possibility that Republicans could retake the senate in November, Lugar’s successor on the committee could become chairman. Either way, the new top Republican on the committee will fundamentally change the character of the panel.
Lugar was known for his statesman-like approach, his deep attention to several specific issues such as nuclear non-proliferation, and his willingness to work with the administration and Democrats, for example on big projects like the New START nuclear reduction treaty with Russia. Perhaps due to his bipartisan character when it came to foreign policy, he was somewhat marginalized toward the end of his tenure by a caucus leadership that was determined to take a more combative and partisan approach to dealing with the Obama administration.
"While Dick and I didn’t always agree on everything, I found during my time in the Senate that he was often willing to reach across the aisle and get things done," President Barack Obama said in a statement Tuesday evening.
As his primary campaign heated up, Lugar became distinctly more cautious on foreign policy matters, perhaps in recognition of the fact that his advocacy for New START, one of the administration’s premier foreign policy projects, had hurt him politically inside the party. Lugar staunchly opposed the intervention in Libya last year and is firmly against the United States getting more deeply involved in the Syrian crisis now.
Behind the scenes, Lugar’s staff is hugely active on a range of foreign policy issues. Not quite as bipartisan as Lugar himself, the GOP minority staff at SFRC butts heads with the majority staff at times. The personal relationship between Lugar and chairman John Kerry (D-MA) has always been cordial in public, although some say less cordial in private.
When Lugar leaves, the most likely choice to replace Lugar is Corker, a Tennessee businessman who like Lugar, opposed the war in Libya and opposes intervention in Syria. But Corker’s foreign policy stance is even more wary of using U.S. power in foreign lands. He said earlier this year he doesn’t even believe the Syrian revolution is about "democracy."
Corker was on the fence during much of the New START debate. He felt the treaty wasn’t very significant in terms of nuclear reductions, and used the negotiations within Congress more as chance to secure funding for nuclear facilities, some of which are in his state. Corker is very effective at defending funds for nuclear modernization and stockpile maintenance.
Corker doesn’t have a firm position on what to do in Afghanistan and he wasn’t particularly vocal on the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. He’s seen on Capitol Hill as someone would have a bit of a learning curve ahead of him were he to become SFRC chairman or ranking member.
Behind the scenes, Corker has a very active foreign policy staff that is said by Hill sources to not get along well with Lugar’s staff. If Corker takes over as lead Republican on the committee, there could be a house cleaning on the staff side.
But Corker’s accession is not assured. The Republican committee members have the power to vote for whomever they want. In fact, after the 2010 election, there was an effort to vote Lugar out of the ranking member’s position, but Lugar prevailed by a slim margin.
For some Republicans both on and off Capitol Hill, Corker is seen as neither aggressive nor hawkish enough on key foreign policy issues.
"It’s difficult to make the case that someone who doesn’t even see the merits of the fall of Bashar al-Assad for American interests deserves to have the top Republican spot on the committee," said one GOP foreign policy pundit. "There are other Republicans, such as Sen. Rubio, who have advocated a much more coherent and thoughtful foreign policy vision that might make them more appealing replacements for Sen. Lugar."
Rubio has laid out a foreign policy vision that tracks more closely with hawks like Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). He is also seen as a rising star on foreign policy in the party and an SFRC chairmanship could bolster Rubio’s national security bona fides ahead of a possible 2016 presidential run.
In the end, Corker might not even want the job. He is also currently in line to take over the top Republican spot on the banking committee, currently held by Richard Shelby (R-AL), who is barred by the rules from continuing on in that role due to committee term limits. If Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the ranking member on the finance committee loses his election, then Shelby’s presumptive successor Mike Crapo (R-ID) would move over to take the top GOP spot on the finance committee, leaving Corker as the top Republican on banking.
Corker might prefer banking over SFRC — and he can’t chair both. Risch also has several possibilities for chairmanships that next year that could change the game on who gets moved up at SFRC.
In the end, some of Lugar’s Senate colleagues said that his defeat showed the shrinking room for moderates in the Senate and the lowering national tolerance for those whose focus is beyond America’s shores.
"There are people ideologically driven on the right and the left who want to pick up seats, look at what happened to Sen. Lieberman," said Graham in a short interview. "The lesson to be learned is vote your conscience and if you’re an incumbent, you better not lose touch with home."