Top Democrats are discussing who will replace Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and their choice could have profound impacts on how the U.S. uses its power abroad ― particularly if Democrats retain control of the chamber and win the White House in November’s elections.
While the result in Engel’s primary is not yet finalized, challenger Jamaal Bowman is expected to prevail in New York’s 16th Congressional District after the final vote-counting, which began Wednesday, concludes. If, as currently seems likely, Democrats keep their House majority, that would leave Engel’s chairmanship ― a powerful position on a powerful committee ― up for grabs in next year’s Congress. And congressional Democrats would have a key chance to grapple with their foreign policy record ― including how past mistakes enabled the rise of President Donald Trump.
They could squander it.
The chairmanship contest has narrowed down to two contenders, congressional sources say: Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.). Both told HuffPost they are not running for anything until all the votes in Engel’s race are counted.
Sharp criticism of Engel’s hawkish record featured heavily in the primary campaign that’s all-but-certain to unseat him. Despite that, with either Meeks or Sherman presumably set to take the committee helm, neither is seen as likely to use the post to push for the transformation of the U.S. role in the world that some progressives want the Democratic Party to spearhead.
At the same time, allies of both lawmakers suggest they see some lessons in Engel’s sudden fall and the rise of new voices in the party who question how America often violently maintains its global dominance.
The Power Of The Gavel
The Foreign Affairs Committee considers most legislation affecting international relations, oversees the State Department and the U.S Agency for International Development, hosts hearings where top officials are grilled on their national security choices, receives advance notice on plans to export American weapons and helps decide when Congress will exert its authority over war and peace.
The support of the panel’s chairman is crucial for Democrats pushing foreign policy changes, particularly because Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) often defer to them, a House aide told HuffPost.
The aide cited the years-long fight to end U.S. support for a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, one of the most consequential congressional campaigns on international relations in recent memory. Engel eventually backed that effort and helped it gain traction, along with Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
“When we have gotten things done, it’s because [those two chairs] are lined up,” said the aide, who requested anonymity to discuss maneuverings on Capitol Hill.
Conversely, a lack of support from the chair because of disinterest or active opposition can be fatal. In recent weeks, Engel’s focus on his primary made it harder for staffers and activists to lobby for tweaks to an annual defense bill because he was slow to give the effort his stamp of approval, the aide said.
Criticism of Engel from Bowman ― and fellow primary challenger Andom Ghebreghiorgis, who dropped out weeks before the vote ― started last summer and likely guided some of Engel’s more dovish recent decisions, according to a lawmaker who asked to speak on background to comment on fellow members of Congress.
“The first lesson is why we need competitive primaries,” the lawmaker said. “Bowman’s outspoken advocacy on Yemen and Iran helped us pass amendments and resolutions to prevent a war in Iran and stop the war in Yemen.”
A spokesman for Engel declined to comment.
Progressives working against Engel used his overall foreign policy choices ― particularly voting for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and opposing President Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015 ― to characterize him as out-of-touch with the party and its voters. That talk of global affairs did not solely determine the course of the primary race, but it did contribute to Bowman’s broader narrative that Engel was indifferent to his constituents.
Poll after poll has shown an appetite among Democrats for a less interventionist approach, and some Obama-era officials ― including advisers to Joe Biden, this year’s presumed Democratic presidential nominee ― are urging reforms to make U.S. foreign policy more reflective of America’s stated values and to dovetail with the party’s fight against inequality at home.
The next chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee will need to address U.S. relations with Israel, a focus of intra-Democratic debate as many experts say it’s important to update America’s approach. The new chair will also confront questions over renewing diplomacy with Iran, winding down American deployments in Afghanistan and the Middle East, dealing with authoritarians in U.S.-friendly countries like Saudi Arabia, India and Brazil, and how much to compete with China, Russia and other nations.
Every faction of the Democratic Party has a stake in the way that colleague handles the role.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a central player in the campaign against the Yemen war and an ally of progressive leader Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), summarized the hopes on the left: “We need the chair to be progressive on foreign policy specifically, not just generally progressive on other issues. This is a meaningful distinction.”
Different Choices, Similar Styles
Sherman, 65, and Meeks, 66, have each served in Congress for over 20 years and are the two most senior Democrats on the committee after Engel. Neither is a firebrand or a household name, and both are close to important supporters of traditional U.S. foreign policy, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.
The two endorsed Engel, 73, in his primary fight and are institutionalists who are deploying classic Capitol Hill arguments in rallying support for their chairmanship bids, citing their experiences on various subcommittees.
There are some key differences between the two lawmakers on global affairs.
Meeks voted against the Iraq war. He also opposed the prospect of other interventions, spoke up for diplomacy with Iran when it was especially controversial and built a dialogue with the U.S.-bashing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, ultimately representing the country at Chavez’s funeral on Obama’s behalf.
Sherman is more hawkish on Middle East policy. He supported President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, opposed the Obama administration’s deal with Iran and challenged Obama over allowing a United Nations resolution critical of Israel. (Meeks voted against condemning the move). His supporters, however, say it’s important to look beyond that region; Sherman has condemned India’s crackdown on Muslim communities and aggressively used the foreign affairs committee to scrutinize Trump.
But both are wary of the increasingly assertive left wing of the party ― and there’s little reason to think that would change if they were in the chairmanship. Though Meeks has a more dovish record, he has criticized progressive activists, as well as Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for supporting primary challenges to Democrats seen as pro-establishment.
In short, both Meeks and Sherman have largely stuck to the Democratic mainstream on foreign policy, in keeping with their profiles as relative moderates and long-time party figures (with the notable exception of Sherman veering to the right of Obama on some issues). Should Biden win the presidency, both would likely use the chairmanship largely to support his administration; Meeks backers, for instance, say his top international concerns are Trump’s departure from the Iran deal and the Paris climate accord ― agreements Biden has pledged to strengthen and rejoin.
That makes it hard to imagine either pursuing the scrutiny left-wing activists would seek ― should Biden reinstitute controversial Obama-era policies and personnel while shying away from broad change ― or charting paths more progressive than that of a Biden White House.
If Trump remains in office, the committee under Democratic control would be expected to continue almost entirely as it has under Engel: focused on oversight like investigations into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and speaking up for aspects of conventional foreign policy that the president attacks, as well as condemning his blunders.
The Horse Race
Meeks is ahead in the contest to replace Engels, according to congressional staffers. Three other lawmakers once seen as contenders, Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), are now almost certainly out of the running; some believe Reps. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) could still jump in.
Meeks has won endorsements from the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members cite the value of appointing a Black man to lead a crucial panel. Appointing him would also be a nod to New York’s influential delegation, which is losing two heads of committees, Engel and Rep. Nita Lowey (D), who is retiring from office.
And though Sherman has more seniority on the committee ― traditionally a key factor in leadership battles ― his reputation works against him, a senior congressional aide told HuffPost. The lawmaker “has no real friends (in Congress) and people think he’s an oddball,” according to the aide.
Sherman declined to respond.
Meeks, however, also has image issues. He has repeatedly appeared on lists of ethically challenged lawmakers compiled by the watchdog group CREW.
Meeks noted that the House Ethics Committee cleared him of questions raised about a loan and a trip to Azerbaijan, and added that he first faced accusations of corruption when right-wing groups were pushing similar charges against fellow Black lawmakers Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).
“I hope that people don’t continue to keep bringing this up because I happen to be a Black man,” Meeks told HuffPost.
Sherman’s allies note that he has greater experience across the committee, has emphasized his opposition to a war with Iran and has introduced more bills in his latest term than Meeks, who recently has been focusing on his work on the Financial Services Committee.
Meeks rejected any contention that he has been distracted from his role on the foreign policy panel, telling HuffPost, “Anybody that knows me will tell you that while I am focused on financial services, my passion has always been ― and that’s why I do it ― in foreign affairs.”
For his part, Sherman only agreed to be quoted on the following: “I am a leading voice against military confrontations with China and I love Eliot Engel.”