- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Big changes are coming for Capitol Hill’s two most influential foreign policy bodies — even if the Republicans retain their House and Senate majorities during the midterm elections later this year.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Rep. Ed Royce of California, the GOP chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees, respectively, are both leaving office when their terms are up at the end of 2018.

If the Democrats win big in November, they’ll take over the chairmanships. But with Republicans expecting to hold their majorities, several GOP lawmakers are already gunning behind the scenes to replace Mr. Royce and Mr. Corker. Both are considered relative moderates in their caucus and Mr. Corker, in particular, has had a strained relationship with President Trump.

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“At a moment when American foreign policy is in flux because of the recent change in White House administrations, losing these two senior chairman who’ve demonstrated a capacity to get things done could be dangerous,” said Thomas M. Hill, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, who served until recently on the House committee’s majority staff.

“The rest of the world looks to Washington for leadership over Western democracies and right now they’re getting mixed messages from this White House,” Mr. Hill said. “As a result, allies and adversaries are looking to Congress for a clear message and if you have tumult at the chairman level, you’re not going to have a unified foreign policy.”

P.J. Crowley, a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs under President Clinton, noted the transition comes amid grave foreign policy threats in North Korea, the Middle East and elsewhere.

“You’re dealing with an incredibly broad and complex array of issues and it will take time for whoever steps into these committee positions to adjust,” he said. “When it comes to finding lawmakers with the experience to oversee the complexities of crafting American foreign policy, there are not exactly deep benches.”

There are already several players from both parties waiting in the wings. If the Democrats win the Senate, seniority dictates Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland Democrat, is in line to succeed Mr. Corker as Foreign Relations Committee chairman.

The catch is that the spot may be more likely to go to Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who had been the committee’s ranking member prior to a 2015 Senate ethics probe into corruption charges. With the probe expected to be cleared up by the end of 2018, Mr. Menendez is rumored to be pushing to reclaim his ranking member status.

Mr. Cardin is seen as likely to step aside on grounds he would rather head the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, seen as more relevant to his constituency in the Chesapeake Bay region.

If the Republicans retain control in the midterms, Sen. James Risch is in line to take over as Foreign Relations chairman. But there’s a catch there as well, according Mr. Hill, who claims the Idaho Republican is likely more interested in pursuing the chairman’s seat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

It’s arguably a more prestigious and powerful committee and Mr. Risch is in line to replace current Intel chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who’s said he plans to retire in 2022.

That would push Marco Rubio, the former presidential candidate from Florida, to the front of the GOP line for Foreign Relations.

Whether it’s Mr. Rubio or Mr. Menendez, analysts say one thing is certain: The committees focus will shift toward Latin America.

Both men are staunch Cuba hawks and likely to push to roll back the diplomatic opening that the Obama administration pursued with Havana. “There’s not a lot of daylight between these two,” said Mr. Hill. “In addition to Cuba, both can be expected to go after Venezuela hard, pushing for sanctions and probably going after Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro personally.”

“If Menendez takes over, he’ll probably also attempt to go after Ecuador,” added Mr. Hill, who noted the senator’s frustration over the South American nation’s willingness to allow WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to avoid international prosecution by hiding out in its embassy in London for the past several years.

As for Mr. Royce’s seat, the politics are murkier since the House chairmanships — unlike in the Senate — are based not only on seniority, but members’ fundraising records and loyalty to leadership.

The GOP currently has a 238-to-193 majority in the House (with four vacancies) and faces a difficult midterm landscape, polls suggest. Several GOP lawmakers are quietly vying for the Foreign Affairs chairmanship, including current committee members Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas.

Mr. McCaul will have served out six years as head of the House Homeland Security Committee as of the end of 2018, the limit under self-imposed Republican rules.

In an early January statement announcing his impending retirement, Mr. Royce said he wants to focus policy to confront “the brutal, corrupt and dangerous regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran, Vladimir Putin’s continued efforts to weaponize information to fracture Western democracies, and growing terrorist threats in Africa and Central Asia.”

However, Mr. Royce is expected to make a final push on an issue he’s been attempting to draw attention to for years: reforming the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) that oversees all U.S. government-funded international media.

Mr. Royce succeeded in 2016 in pushing through legislation that consolidated oversight over such BBG operations as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty under a single chief executive. But the congressman has said it was just a “first step” toward fixing bureaucratic problems that has prevented the U.S.-funded broadcasting from competing as it should with extremist propaganda and a resurgent Russia.

“Our agencies that helped take down the Iron Curtain with accurate and timely broadcasting have lost their edge,” Mr. Royce said in 2016. “They must be revitalized to effectively carry out their mission in this age of viral terrorism and digital propaganda.”

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