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Menendez looks to rebuild Senate Foreign Relations panel’s power

New chairman of Foreign Relations Committee wants more active oversight over Iran, China and Ukraine policy

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., speaks during a news conference in December.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., speaks during a news conference in December. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

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 January 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.

Breakdown of ‘comity’

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.

Most notable was last summer when Risch, under direct pressure from Trump, broke comity to hold a confirmation hearing for Michael Pack to become the new head of U.S. international broadcasting operations. Since his narrow confirmation on a partisan vote, Pack has infuriated both Republicans and Democrats with his efforts to politically influence the journalism produced by Voice of America and other U.S. government-funded news organizations, in violation of federal statute designed to insulate the news outlets from political interference. 

In addition, earlier this month the attorney general of the District of Columbia filed suit against Pack for illegal “self-enrichment” for diverting tax-exempt funds from a nonprofit he controlled to a for-profit private film company he also owned.

Aware of Pack’s tax issues as well as his troubling relationship with Steve Bannon — a high-profile Trump supporter and white nationalist who is also under indictment for an unrelated fraud scheme — Menendez last May objected to holding a committee confirmation vote for Pack. Menendez was upset that Risch insisted on proceeding with the vote for Pack while there were still unanswered questions about his tax issues with the IRS and inaccuracies in his official responses to the committee as part of his confirmation process.

At the time, Menendez publicly warned Risch that if he regained the Foreign Relations gavel he might follow suit in ignoring comity when it didn’t suit him.

But as the gavel is now within his grasp, Menendez is rethinking that threat, according to current and former Senate Democrat staffers.

For one thing, the situations that badly strained comity — when Menendez would not end his objection to holding confirmation votes for nominees that he felt had not been properly vetted by the Trump executive branch — are unlikely to repeat themselves in the Biden era.

“Our full expectation is that we’re going to go back to a process where nominees are vetted by the executive before coming to Congress,” said a Senate staffer who was not authorized to be quoted. “A lot of members are looking to Menendez to rebuild and reestablish the committee and that is something he is taking quite seriously: piecing back together the way the committee has historically worked.”

More active committee

Under Risch’s leadership, few Foreign Relations Committee hearings were conducted to scrutinize Trump’s most controversial foreign policy actions, including those on Iran, weapon sales to the Gulf states, aid to Ukraine, and elsewhere. According to the centrist Lugar Center’s Congressional Oversight Hearing Index, Risch held roughly 40 percent fewer policy hearings than the historical average set by his recent predecessor chairmen.

Risch’s office was contacted twice by CQ Roll Call about how he plans to work with Menendez going forward, but the only reply was that he agreed to the January 19 hearing date for Blinken’s nomination.

In contrast, when he was last chairman from 2013-2014, Menendez held 45 more policy hearings than Risch did in the most recent Congress even as President Barack Obama, a member of his own party, occupied the White House. Last year, Menendez introduced several policy bills on the global COVID-19 pandemic and a holistic policy response to China; both could receive renewed attention in this Congress.

“He is a policymaker. He relishes his role,” said Jodi Herman, a former longtime staffer for Menendez and a former Democratic staff director for the Foreign Relations Committee. “As chairman of that committee, he is interested in legislating. He is interested in conducting oversight and using the tools of the committee to do those things.”