Showdown in House Foreign Affairs Chair Race Reflects Rifts in Democratic Party

The battle between centrists and progressives over U.S. foreign policy that is dogging Biden’s transition is also playing out in a crucial committee.

House Foreign Affairs Committee member Joaquin Castro speaks at a hearing.
Rep. Joaquin Castro,(D-TX) speaks during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington on Sept. 16, 2020. Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

A group of leading Democratic lawmakers have recommended New York Rep. Gregory Meeks as the next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after an unusually competitive three-way race for the influential congressional role that has an outsized hand in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

The Democratic steering committee’s endorsement of Meeks seems to clear the way for him to win the chairmanship during the full caucus vote on Thursday. But long-shot progressive challenger Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro hasn’t given up the fight and is still actively rallying support ahead of the full vote, several congressional aides told Foreign Policy

The race between centrist Meeks and Castro is a microcosm of the ongoing battle within the Democratic Party over what its foreign-policy platform should be, as progressive lawmakers push the party and President-elect Joe Biden to adopt more left-leaning policies that pare back decades of bipartisan consensus on issues like military spending, U.S. troop deployments abroad, and free-trade deals. 

Those same intra-party tensions are playing out as Biden faces pressure from the center and left flanks of his party over key administration appointments. This includes the CIA director position as well as the secretary of defense, where the seeming favorite, Michèle Flournoy, has faced criticism from progressive groups over her ties to the defense industry and her role in U.S. interventions in Libya and the Middle East during prior posts at the Department of Defense.

Progressive Democratic lawmakers including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar also backed an effort to block Biden from elevating Bruce Reed, his former chief of staff, to an influential administration post, criticizing his record as a deficit hawk who endorsed cuts to social security and Medicare.

Meeks far outstripped both his challengers inside the Democratic steering committee, securing 29 votes, against Castro’s 13, with California Rep. Brad Sherman, a committee veteran, getting 10. Sherman bowed out shortly after the vote, held late Tuesday.

If Meeks is elected, he will make history as the first Black chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in its 198-year history. Meeks has crucial backing from the Congressional Black Caucus for the vote, and has even netted endorsements from influential progressive members such as Michigan Rep. Andy Levin. But environmental and labor groups have also urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to oppose Meeks over what they describe as his “pro-corporate trade” positions, as Axios reported.

Castro has support from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and key members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona.

Earlier this year, Castro broke precedent by declaring his intention to run for the chairmanship—top committee posts are usually picked by seniority—after the current chairman, New York Rep. Eliot Engel, lost a bruising primary race against a progressive challenger. In his bid for the chairmanship, Castro, currently vice chair of the committee and chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, has called for a new Democratic approach to foreign policy.

While the vote for the chairmanship is done by secret ballot, Castro’s entry into the race turned what are typically closed-door deliberations into a rare public spectacle. Progressive foreign-policy groups hope to spark a broader inside-the-Beltway debate on what Democrats should stand for on foreign policy, especially after a disappointing harvest of House seats in the 2020 elections.

Whoever wins the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee will play an important role in Congress’s work on national security, foreign aid, trade, and the Biden administration’s pledge to revitalize America’s demoralized diplomatic corps. 

Engel, the current chairman, found himself at the center of some of the fiercest battles between Democrats and the Trump administration during the past four years. The committee played a key role in outgoing President Donald Trump’s impeachment investigation and opened other probes into the State Department, including allegations of mismanagement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as controversial arms sales. Both Meeks and Castro previously told Foreign Policy they would keep those investigations open after Trump leaves office in January. 

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

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