Foreign policy battle between McCain, Rand Paul to hit Senate committee

A battle in the Republican party over how deeply the U.S. should be involved overseas is expected to play out on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Lawmakers of different stripes will find themselves working side-by-side on the panel in the new Congress.

Two of the Senate panel’s incoming members — Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — embody the clash over America’s proper role in the world.

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“I think there are going to be some tensions within our party,” McCain presciently predicted in November 2010 after Paul's election. “I worry a lot about the rise of protectionism and isolationism in the Republican Party.”

Paul has bristled at that description – he’s said calling him an ‘isolationist’ “is about as accurate or appropriate as calling Senator McCain an ‘imperialist' ” – but has since proposed defense and foreign aid cuts that have infuriated McCain.

Paul may not be the only Republican target of McCain's well-documented ire.

While the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee has led the charge for a forceful U.S. intervention in Syria, his incoming counterpart on the Senate Foreign Relations panel has at times appeared even less eager than President Obama about getting drawn into a conflict that has left more than 60,000 people dead over the past 22 months.

“There is much discussion here about the U.S. arming the Free Syrian Army to deal with Syrian aircraft,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the panel, told reporters after returning from a trip to the Turkish border in September. “And while that may end up being the right course of action, their current loose alignment and lack of cohesiveness could make it a very problematic decision in the long run.”

Altogether, five out of the nine Republicans who served on the panel in the last Congress won't be returning, including Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), a long-time centrist Republican leader on foreign policy. Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), another foreign aid foe, are joining the committee along with Paul and McCain.

Democrats are seeing less movement but will lose their chairman, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), if as expected the Senate approves his nomination for secretary of State.

He will be replaced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has bucked the White House on Cuba and Iran and called for a tougher stance. The committee loses Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.), who opposed the military operation in Libya, in favor of freshmen Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

The House panel is also seeing a significant changeover, with Republicans getting 15 new members, 13 of them freshmen.

These include Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a rising conservative star and Army platoon leader who recently reasserted the discredited link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terror attacks and strenuously opposes Obama's pick for secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel.

Another hawk, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), is losing the chairmanship to the more centrist Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) but gains the chairmanship of a newly created subpanel on the Middle East and North Africa.

The other freshmen members are Reps. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), Paul Cook (R-Calif.), George Holding (R-N.C.), Randy Weber (R-Texas), Scott Perry (R-Penn.), Steve Stockman (R-Texas), Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), Trey Radel (R-Fla.), Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) and Luke Messer (R-Ind.). Sophomores Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) are also joining the committee.

On the Democratic side, the strongly pro-Israel Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) is replacing the defeated Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) as ranking member.

Democrats are gaining 10 new members out of 21, including liberal bomb-thrower Alan Grayson (Fla.). The other newcomers are: Juan Vargas (Calif.), Bradley Schneider (Ill.), Joseph Kennedy (Mass.), Ami Bera (Calif.), Alan Lowenthal (Calif.), Grace Meng (N.Y.), Lois Frankel (Fla.), Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and Joaquin Castro (Texas).