A shake-up is under way on the congressional committees that oversee national security and defense just days after elections that did little to change the balance of power in the U.S. Senate and House.
Hours after the last polls closed Nov. 6, two top Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee began to compete for the chairmanship now held by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who has reached a term limit for the post. The top Democrat on the panel, Howard Berman of California, was defeated in the election, leaving another vacancy.
In the Senate, the top Republicans on both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees will be replaced when a new session begins in January, and President Barack Obama would create another opening if he nominates Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
“Is it possible for there to be any more uncertainty?” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based research organization.
The changes come as pressures to reduce U.S. budget deficits make it difficult to predict defense spending and Obama faces international challenges from Iran and Syria to Russia and China. The shifts, which will be resolved before the new session of Congress begins in January, follow elections that generally yielded a status quo result.
Democrats retained control of the Senate, picking up two seats to hold a 55-45 majority. In the House, Republicans remain in power despite losing a half dozen seats to Democrats while Obama won a second term.
The impending shifts were caused by a mix of retirements, rules limiting the terms of committee leaders and ballot-box losses, said Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“There’s always turnover, but there’s more turnover this cycle than is usual,” said Mandelbaum, the author of “The Frugal Superpower,” which examines the fiscal pressures on U.S. defense.
The shakeup is part of a drain of congressional expertise on national security issues in recent years, said Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Capital Alpha Partners in Washington.
“There hasn’t been a lot of gravitas for years -- the equivalent of a Sam Nunn or a Les Aspin, someone who was steeped in defense issues,” said Callan, referring to long-time chairmen of the Senate and House armed services panels.
The departure of Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a six-term lawmaker who’s the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, leaves his party without its elder statesman on international affairs in the chamber. Lugar, who was defeated in a Republican primary in May, was a leader in efforts to stem the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
He helped push a strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia through the Senate in 2010 over the opposition of Republican leaders. More recently, he’s opposed deeper U.S. involvement in the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The lawmaker most likely to replace Lugar, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, is next in line in committee seniority even though he only won his second term this week. If Corker is selected by Republican colleagues, he’s pledged to review all foreign aid and State Department programs.
While Corker has reached across the aisle to Democrats on some issues, he’s likely to side with Republican leaders most of the time, according to Thompson.
“Lugar hearkens back to a period of bipartisan consensus, when the operative phrase was that politics ends at the water’s edge,” Thompson said. “Corker is a partisan, although he’s a congenial partisan. He is going to be more likely to make decisions based on ideological considerations than Lugar would have been.”
Kerry is a possible choice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. A strike against him is the prospect that Republican Senator Scott Brown, who was ousted by Democrat Elizabeth Warren this week, might run successfully for Kerry’s seat if it opens, Mandlebaum said.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is emerging as the favored candidate to succeed the departing Clinton, according to six current or former White House officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. They emphasized that Obama hasn’t made a decision yet.
On the Democratic-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican, must step aside because of term limits.
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Republican next in line, said in a statement yesterday that he’s “looking forward” to taking McCain’s place if Republicans support him, and is concerned about the impact of across-the-board cuts to defense spending, known as “sequestration,” that will start in January unless a bipartisan debt deal is reached.
“My focus on the committee will be on military readiness, acquisition reform, and preventing the potential hollowing out of our forces,” Inhofe said. “After more than a decade of war, our personnel and equipment needs will be wide-ranging, and I am ready to address these very important issues.”
Inhofe, whose state is home to Fort Sill, an Army post in Lawton, Oklahoma, has focused on Army artillery issues. He’s also a supporter of missile defense and was a leader in the successful fight against President Bill Clinton’s effort to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would ban all nuclear weapons test explosions.
The biggest difference between Inhofe and McCain is McCain’s role as a critic of cost overruns on weapons programs such as Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. McCain has called the company’s F-22 fighter “the most expensive, corroding hangar queen ever.”
“McCain is a center-right legislator who has dedicated much of his career to reform of the military acquisition system and oversight of the Pentagon,” Thompson said. “His removal would really change the environment in which the defense industry and the military services operate.”
Inhofe, a leader among Republicans who challenge the science showing humans are causing global climate change, has criticized the Navy’s spending on “green energy” development.
Changes also will come to the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee with the retirement of Representative Norm Dicks of Washington, the top Democrat on the full committee and on its defense subcommittee. Dicks is a chief protector of defense spending and the interests of Boeing Co., which employs thousands of people in his western Washington district.
He’s likely to be replaced on the full committee by Representative Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, and on the subcommittee by Representative Peter Visclosky, an Indiana Democrat, according to a lobbyist for a defense contractor who requested anonymity.
On the House Foreign Relations Committee, Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican, seeks to replace Ros-Lehtinen after heading the panel’s subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade.
Royce said in a letter to House Republican colleagues yesterday that if selected he will probe the Sept. 11 attacks at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. He also said he will take steps to pressure Iran to stop nuclear weapons development.
“Right now, the gravest threat facing the U.S. and our allies is Iran,” Royce said. “We need to be doing all we can to pressure its regime to stop its march to nuclear weapons.”
His leading rival for the post, Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, heads the subcommittee on Africa, global health and human rights. In a statement, he said he’s encouraged by feedback he’s getting from House Republican leaders as he pursues the post. “I am ready and eager to successfully communicate our foreign policy priorities,” he said.
The exodus of national-security experts from Congress included the 2009 retirement of former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, a Virginia Republican and former Navy Secretary; the 2010 defeat of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat; the 2008 election defeat of former Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican; and the 2010 death of Pennsylvania Democratic Representative John Murtha, who led the House defense appropriations subcommittee before Dicks.
Mandelbaum said the end of the Cold War has made the national security committees less attractive to lawmakers, in part by limiting the appeal of foreign policy and defense credentials to voters in re-election campaigns.
“During the Cold War, this was important, especially defense,” he said. “So someone like Sam Nunn or John Warner could entrench themselves by being defense experts. That’s not true anymore. It’s not as high-profile or important.”