WASHINGTON — As soon as next week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will pass back into Democratic control and the hands of its former chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez.
Menendez has said he wants to rebuild the committee’s institutional reputation within Congress for bipartisanship and for members generally placing national security interests above partisan concerns.
Outgoing Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, as his last act as committee head will preside over the Jan. 19 confirmation hearing of President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of State nominee, Antony Blinken, which was announced late Tuesday night.
Juan Pachon, communications director for Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Menendez will refocus the committee on oversight issues as well as the fallout from the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“Senator Menendez takes the long view to his chairmanship, guided by the belief that projecting American values from the committee dais will make a real difference in the world and improve the lives of everyday Americans,” Pachon said. “The issues confronted by the SFRC are not defined by either political party and will require the committee to fully reengage so the United States Congress stands on the side of all people who struggle for democracy, human rights and freedom.”
But even as a bipartisan majority of committee members generally support Biden’s foreign policy priorities of regaining the trust of longtime allies, which was badly damaged by President Donald Trump, and reasserting U.S. leadership on the global stage including in providing COVID-19 vaccine access around the globe, deep divisions remain that may be difficult to overcome.
For one thing, some of Trump’s biggest supporters are committee members. They include Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a co-leader of the Republican group of senators who voted to overturn the results of last November’s elections; Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the outgoing head of the Homeland Security Committee who outraged Democrats last year by using that platform to promote conspiracy theories about Biden, his son Hunter and the security of the 2020 election; and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, perhaps Trump’s closest confidant and adviser in the Senate.
Also on the committee is Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the only Senate Republican to vote in 2020 to convict Trump in his impeachment trial. Romney has been one of the strongest congressional GOP voices to condemn his colleagues for their acquiescence to Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him.
Added to that combustible mix is Risch, who will soon be the ranking member. He and Menendez had a fraught working relationship in the last Congress, largely because the New Jersey senator thought Risch was too willing to carry water for several of Trump’s nominees who had serious question marks in their professional histories.
On three occasions as chairman, Risch broke the committee’s longstanding bipartisan tradition, which the committee calls comity, whereby the chairman and ranking member jointly agree on the agenda of a business meeting.