The Cable

National Security Questions in the Race for House Speaker

The new, relatively inexperienced, pols fighting it out to be next Speaker of the House

Cocooned in scaffolding, the US Capitol dome is seen in a reflecting pool on October 28, 2014 in Washington, DC as it undergoes  its first comprehensive repairs in more than half a century a century. The two-year, USD 60 million project is aimed at repairing nearly 1,300 cracks that have emerged in the nine-million-pound (4.1-million-kilogram) cast iron dome, according to the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) office.  Construction on the dome began in 1855. Work symbolically continued through the US Civil War and the structure was eventually completed in 1866.    AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards        (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Cocooned in scaffolding, the US Capitol dome is seen in a reflecting pool on October 28, 2014 in Washington, DC as it undergoes its first comprehensive repairs in more than half a century a century. The two-year, USD 60 million project is aimed at repairing nearly 1,300 cracks that have emerged in the nine-million-pound (4.1-million-kilogram) cast iron dome, according to the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) office. Construction on the dome began in 1855. Work symbolically continued through the US Civil War and the structure was eventually completed in 1866. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Just as foreign policy looms large over the GOP presidential race, foreign affairs and homeland security are increasingly taking center stage in another pivotal and closely-watched Republican showdown: The battle to replace John Boehner as Speaker of the House.

The one time presumptive favorite House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R.-Calif.) recently pledged to make defense his “top” priority if elected speaker and has sought to burnish his foreign policy credentials criticizing the Obama administration’s current approach to Iran, Syria, and more. So far, though, McCarthy’s foreign-policy forays have done little to bolster his image.

He boasted that House oversight investigations into the deadly consulate attacks in Benghazi, Libya, had taken a political toll on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner in the Democratic race for president. That sent the House Republican caucus into an uproar, since it has always maintained that the investigations were non-political; many colleagues condemned McCarthy’s comments and demanded an apology, which he eventually provided.

Leading the pack is the man running against McCarthy for the most powerful job in the lower chamber: Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah). He wasted no time in defending the Benghazi investigations and lambasting McCarthy. It was an “absolutely inappropriate statement,” he told CNN. “That was not the reason we started. We started because there were four dead Americans and we didn’t have answers,” he said.

McCarthy, not known as gifted extemporaneous speaker, tried to hammer his favorite foreign-policy talking points in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, who has become an unintentional mine field for Republicans. McCarthy jumbled together criticisms of the Iran deal, the threat of terrorism, and the force level of the U.S. Army in a confused answer to why he wants to prioritize defense if he wins the Speaker’s job.

“If we don’t secure ourselves, and if people don’t quite understand where Iran is now getting $150 billion, and we only used to send $16 billion, where are they going to fund this? And who are these little cells that are going to be coming into America? We have to defend America and be strong. Our military is now equal to the 1940s.”

Republican strategist Ed Rogers is worried about McCarthy’s “verbal bumbling or embarrassing ignorance,” as he wrote last week, saying that Republicans better brace themselves for his gaffes if he is elected.

Late last month, McCarthy also delivered his ”foreign policy vision” to the John Hay Initiative, a conservative organization that grooms Republican politicians on the finer points of speaking about foreign policy. In the short speech, he reiterated standard criticisms of the national security failures over the past six years.

He called for putting a “limited numbers of U.S. Special Forces personnel on the ground” in Iraq, establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria, and providing “more effective support to the Iraqi Army, Sunni, and Kurdish units directly engaged in the fight.”

As Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Chaffetz has been more concerned with Homeland Security than events overseas. He has been one of the most vocal critics of the Transportation Security Administration and the security measures put in place in the wake of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He also recently expressed concern over terrorists hiding among the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East

But most famously, Chaffetz has wrangled with another part of the Department of Homeland Security: the Secret Service. As head of the oversight panel, Chaffetz led the investigations into the Secret Service’s numerous and well-publicized security failures, the most serious of which was a man jumping the White House fence and entering the building last fall. In apparent reprisal, the agency decided to use Chaffetz’s own application to join the Secret Service in 2003 against him.

On Monday, the internal watchdog for DHS announced that it is reopening the investigation into that whole affair. Inspector General John Roth his office said it is renewing the investigation because Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy now has a “different recollection” of the events than he earlier told to investigators.

While the two men battle it out for votes on the House floor, the window for campaigning is closing fast. House Republicans will vote by secret ballot on Thursday, followed by a full floor vote later in the month.

Photo Credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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