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Black Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are already rallying behind Rep. Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksFresh hurdles push timeline on getting China bill to Biden White House pressed on evacuating Afghan allies as time runs out Meeks introduces legislation to boost American diplomacy to counter China MORE (D-N.Y.) as a possible replacement for Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelDemocrats call on Blinken to set new sexual misconduct policies at State Department Lawmakers on hot mic joke 'aisle hog' Engel absent from Biden address: 'He'd wait all day' Bowman to deliver progressive response to Biden's speech to Congress MORE (D-N.Y.), the Foreign Affairs chairman who appears to have lost his primary race this week. 

Meeks is the third-ranking Democrat on the panel, behind Engel and Rep. Brad ShermanBradley (Brad) James ShermanOmar feuds with Jewish Democrats Lawmakers tout bipartisan support for resolution criticizing Iran's government Biden funding decision inflames debate over textbooks for Palestinian refugees MORE (D-Calif.), suggesting Sherman would have an advantage within a Democratic Caucus that has long considered seniority to be a major — if not the primary — factor in deciding committee heads.

Yet amid the national unrest over racial injustice in law enforcement — which has found the country reckoning with its racist past and Congress rushing to combat police violence against African Americans — some CBC leaders say the math has changed, and seniority should not eclipse efforts to diversify the Democrats’ power structure. 

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“Seniority is waning as a major factor in consideration for chairmen,” said Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldLobbying world The Memo: How liberal will the Biden presidency be? Democrats vow to go 'bold' — with or without GOP MORE (D-N.C.), a former CBC chairman. “It's a new political environment now. We need a diverse set of committee chairs because that makes a statement to the country that the House of Representatives is reflective of the country. And the fact that Mr. Meeks is African American, I think, is a major factor, and maybe should trump — let me not use that word — be of more weight than seniority.”

Such thinking marks a shift within the CBC, which has derived much of its power on Capitol Hill from members rising to the top of committees based largely on seniority. The group boasts gavels on four key panels, including Financial Services, Homeland Security and Education and Labor.  

But in the event of Engel’s ouster — and a subsequent race between Sherman and Meeks to head Foreign Affairs next year — prominent members of the group are already indicating they’re ready to discard the seniority formula.

"I think seniority is the major consideration but not the only one,” said Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: Biden gives TikTok and WeChat a reprieve | Colonial Pipeline CEO addresses Congress again | Thomson Reuters shareholders want review of ICE ties Colonial Pipeline may use recovered ransomware attack funds to boost cybersecurity Democrats debate shape of new Jan. 6 probe MORE (D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and a Meeks supporter. “People want to know: Can that person get along with other members of the committee? Can that person get along with other Democratic members of the Caucus?"

“Those are the three primary ingredients,” he added.

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyDemocrats weigh next steps on Jan. 6 probe Tlaib, Democrats slam GOP calls for border oversight to fight opioid crisis Shakespeare gets a congressional hearing in this year's 'Will on the Hill' MORE (Va.), the fifth-ranking Democrat on the panel, is also taking a look at the chairman’s race, but said he won’t make any announcements until after Engel officially concedes defeat.

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“Foreign policy, that’s the expertise I bring to Congress. It’s a passion of mine,” Connolly, a former staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill on Thursday. “But I believe it’s premature to be speculating given the fact that the outcome of the chairman’s race in New York has not been determined."

“Would I be interested? Yes, of course. Am I running? Will I run? Those are different questions that have to be assessed if and when the opportunity arises,” said Connolly, who lost a race for the Oversight Committee gavel last year to the more senior Rep. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyWray suggests limits on FBI social media tracking a 'lesson learned' after Jan. 6 Trump, allies pressured DOJ to back election claims, documents show Hillicon Valley: House targets tech giants with antitrust bills | Oversight chair presses JBS over payment to hackers | Trump spokesman to join tech company | YouTube suspends GOP senator MORE (D-N.Y.).

Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassBlack Republican advocates his case for CBC membership Tim Scott: Could be 'very hard' to reach police reform deal by June deadline Police reform negotiations enter crucial stretch MORE (D-Calif.), the CBC chairwoman and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is also downplaying the primacy of seniority in choosing committee heads. While emphasizing that it’s too early to know the roster of candidates who might vie to replace Engel if he loses, she was also quick to note that Democrats have, at times, empowered junior members to leapfrog over more experienced lawmakers on committees. 

Democrats prioritize seniority “until we don’t,” she said. “Of which you've seen many times."

Bass made clear that she’s not interested in the Foreign Affairs gavel. 

Indeed, Engel rose to become top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs panel by jumping over the more senior Sherman, who had ruffled feathers in the caucus by defeating Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a popular party veteran, in a fierce 2012 primary after redistricting. Democrats said they remember Sherman attacking Berman, then the ranking member of Foreign Affairs, for focusing too much on international travel rather than his district back home.

“Brad has enormous baggage,” said one Democrat on Foreign Affairs. “And the Californians of that era do not forget what Brad Sherman did to Howard Berman. Not that he beat him, but how he beat him: attacked him for doing his job.”

Meanwhile, both Sherman and Meeks are playing it coy. Both noted that the votes in Engel’s primary race are still being counted, and both were careful not to project an image that they’re lobbying to replace him. 

"The race hasn't been called. They're going to count every vote, and I have tremendous respect for Eliot Engel,” Sherman said. 

Still, Sherman endorsed the notion that seniority should outweigh most other factors, and seemed to allude to the CBC’s previous support for that very position.  

“I'm on record: I've always honored the seniority system. And others I think are on record also,” he said. “But that's for some other time."

Meeks had endorsed Engel when it became clear that his challenger, a liberal African American educator named Jamaal Bowman, was posing a serious threat to Engel’s bid for a 17th term. 

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“What I'm interested is trying to make sure every vote is counted for Mr. Engel, because my priority is to make sure that Mr. Engel remains as chair of this committee,” Meeks said Wednesday. “And there's a whole lot of votes out there to be counted. And I know that every vote counts.”

While publicly reticent, both Sherman and Meeks are jockeying for position. 

Sherman is said to be calling colleagues in search of their support. And outside the Capitol, where Democrats had gathered Wednesday morning to promote their police reforms, Meeks was seeking an audience with some members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. And those members seemed to know it. 

“I’ve got to talk to you,” Meeks said to Rep. Jim CostaJames (Jim) Manuel CostaBiden waiving sanctions for Nord Stream 2 pipeline firm: report On The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July Rural Democrats urge protections from tax increases for family farms MORE (D-Calif.). 

“I know,” Costa responded. 

Engel, a congressman for over three decades, was elected to the chairmanship in 2018 when Democrats took the majority in the House. He had earlier served as the ranking member and as chairperson and ranking member of the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

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His campaign for reelection was thrown in jeopardy earlier this month when he was caught on a hot mic seemingly saying he wouldn’t have attended an event against racial injustice in his district if he wasn’t competing in a primary. 

That moment gave ammunition to his challenger, Bowman, to paint the congressman as out of touch with his constituency and receive critical endorsement from progressives in the House, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.). 

Establishment Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Energy: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process Wednesday | Bipartisan bill would ban 'forever chemicals' in cosmetics | Biden admin eyes step toward Trump-era proposal for uranium reserve GOP senator: I want to make Biden a 'one-half-term president' How Biden can get the infrastructure bill through Congress MORE (N.Y.), former presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonProgressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC Hillary Clinton backs Manhattan DA candidate in first endorsement of year NSA leaker Reality Winner released from federal prison MORE and New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoPuerto Rico's former governor stages a comeback New York hits 70 percent vaccination goal, lifts COVID-19 restrictions Hundreds of people given expired vaccine doses in Times Square MORE came out behind Engel in the days leading up to the primary election. 

As chairman, Engel is overseeing two probes against the Trump administration, an investigation into the firing of the State Department’s inspector general and a purge of senior officials at the U.S. Agency for Global Media by Trump’s appointee to lead the agency. 

A staunch advocate for Israel, Engel has made his mark on the committee focusing on ensuring security assistance for the Jewish state while also promoting a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. 

As chairman, he has advanced a human rights agenda, drafting the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act that put sanctions on Syria’s President Bashar Assad and others complicit in the indiscriminate killing, torture and suffering of civilians caught up in almost a decade of war.

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Engel is unlikely to concede defeat until all votes are counted in the district, something that could last well past the end of the month as absentee ballots continue to funnel in.

But the current numbers skew in favor of Bowman, who has garnered more than 60 percent of the counted votes.  

“He's in the woods right now, and June 30 will be the final revelation,” Butterfield said. “But I suspect that it is not good.”