Report

House Democrats Jockey for Foreign Affairs Committee Gavel

It’s another battle between centrists and progressives that could have big implications for U.S. foreign policy, especially on Israel.

House Foreign Affairs Committee members Rep. Brad Sherman, left, and Rep. Gregory Meeks
House Foreign Affairs Committee members Rep. Brad Sherman, left, and Rep. Gregory Meeks attend a hearing about Cuba policy in Washington on Feb. 4, 2015. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

House Democrats are jostling behind the scenes to see who will take over the powerful chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as the current chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel, looks poised to lose his primary to a progressive challenger. 

Publicly, Democrats on the committee say they are not making any decisions until the last absentee ballots are counted for Engel’s primary. Privately, current and former congressional aides say that the race has narrowed down to two candidates: Rep. Brad Sherman, of California, and Rep. Gregory Meeks, of New York.

The behind-the-scenes jockeying sheds light on how House Democrats are juggling competing pressures from the progressive and centrist wings of their party ahead of the 2020 elections, with starkly different agendas on foreign policy, trade, and other issues highlighting fissures in a party still smarting from successive bruising presidential primaries.

If Engel in fact loses, putting end to a 31-year congressional career, whoever is picked will set the agenda for Democrats on foreign-policy issues and could play a crucial role in oversight of Donald Trump’s foreign policy if the president wins a second term. In the past two years, the committee has been at the center of the impeachment investigation and led probes into allegations of mismanagement and politically motivated abuse of office at the State Department. 

Engel, who vaulted to the committee’s senior ranks in the past decade, has refused to concede defeat to his primary challenger, progressive newcomer Jamaal Bowman, until absentee votes in that race are counted. Both Sherman and Meeks have already cruised to primary victories in safe Democratic districts.

Sherman is considered more centrist on foreign policy issues and supportive of the U.S.-Israel alliance. He also has more committee leadership experience under his belt: He has served as a chairman or ranking member on a subcommittee for 17 years and has served in all six of the committee’s subcommittees. 

But Meeks, another senior member of the committee who previously served as ranking member on the Europe and Eurasia subcommittee, has emerged as the likely front-runner in the race. Nationwide protests on racial injustice have prompted many House Democrats to push for further diversity in leadership, and if Democrats retain control of the House, as expected, Meeks could be the first ever Black chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Meeks also enjoys support from many in the Congressional Black Caucus, whose political arm he chairs. The New York congressman is seen as holding more progressive views on foreign policy issues, including  U.S.-Israel ties. 

Both Sherman and Meeks signed a letter urging Israel not to move forward with expected plans to annex parts of the West Bank, initially slated for July 1, signaling a shift on Israel that would come in the House Foreign Affairs Committee if either becomes chairman—or ranking member, if the Democrats lose control of the House in the November elections. (Notably, Engel, seen as one of the most vocal supporters of Israel in the Democratic Party, did not sign on to the letter.)

But Meeks has also faced past allegations of ethical violations—since dismissed—and some Democrats don’t see him as a strong voice on foreign policy; several congressional aides noted Meeks has not introduced significant policy bills to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 10 years. 

Sherman in a phone interview declined to comment on the issue, as the results of Engel’s primary aren’t in yet. “Eliot Engel is a friend of mine, the ballots have not been counted. We’ll see what happens there, and I think all of us on the committee are hoping that Eliot ultimately wins his primary,” he said. “It’s too early to be commenting about a race that I hope never emerges.”

Meeks’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.

Other contenders for the job have quietly removed themselves from consideration for the post, said current and former congressional aides familiar with the matter. Florida Rep. Ted Deutch, the chairman of the foreign affairs panel’s subcommittee on the Middle East, will not seek the job, two sources said. A Deutch aide told Foreign Policy that the five-term congressman will not weigh in on the race until Engel formally concedes. 

Deutch’s decision to bow out of the race could help avoid one split between Democratic Party progressives and moderates, who were divided over his long-standing support for Israel and his 2015 vote against the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal. The progressive advocacy group Just Foreign Policy had already launched a petition against Deutch to head off a potential run, but a House aide told Foreign Policy that Deutch’s staff had signaled from the beginning that the congressman would not join the race for the gavel. 

Progressive lawmakers and advocates are rallying for a more left-leaning chair—with Sherman’s past voting record, especially against President Barack Obama’s Iran deal and a vote to defeat a ban on selling cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia mitigating against him.

 “After the damage inflicted by four years of the Trump Administration, we need a chairman who is 100% committed to diplomacy-first foreign policy,” said Andrew Albertson, the head of the advocacy group Foreign Policy for America. “That means passing authorizing legislation to revitalize the State Department, supporting ramped up investments in non-military tools for engaging the world, and defending agreements negotiated by our diplomats. In that context, voting against the [nuclear deal] is simply disqualifying.”

A few potential hurdles loom for Meeks, though. Ethics scandals almost a decade ago dogged him, even though the House Ethics Committee later dropped an investigation into his failure to disclose a questionable real estate deal. Asked about Meeks’s past ethics record holding back his campaign, one House aide said those problems “might become relevant but it’s pretty old at this point.”

Meeks also controversially developed a back-channel relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and attended the socialist leader’s 2013 funeral as part of a delegation tapped by the Obama administration. And some Democrats suggest he has been less focused on the Foreign Affairs Committee in favor of his role as a senior member of the Committee on Financial Services.

“He did prioritize his other committee this Congress,” the House aide told Foreign Policy. “But he wants it, and he has been active on foreign affairs issues in the past.” 

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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