Black Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are already rallying behind Rep. Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - As virus concerns grow, can it get worse for Trump? Black Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Bending the COVID-19 curve proves temporary for many states MORE (D-N.Y.) as a possible replacement for Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelNew York candidates left on hold as primary results trickle in New Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Trump's WHO decision raises bipartisan concerns in House 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 ShermanHouse passes bill to sanction Chinese banks over Hong Kong security law The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - As virus concerns grow, can it get worse for Trump? Black Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel 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 ButterfieldHouse passes police reform bill that faces dead end in Senate Black Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel House to pass sweeping police reform legislation 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 ThompsonState legislatures consider US Capitol's Confederate statues House eyes votes to remove symbols of Confederates from Capitol House to vote on removing bust of Supreme Court justice who wrote Dred Scott ruling 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 ConnollyBlack Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel Ousted watchdog says he told top State aides about Pompeo probe House committee chair requests immediate briefing on Secret Service's involvement in clearing protesters 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 Bosher MaloneyNew York candidates left on hold as primary results trickle in New Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Nurses union warns of shortage in protective gear amid new coronavirus surge MORE (D-N.Y.).

Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassTim Scott says he's talking with House Democrats about reviving police reform bill Biden-Sanders 'unity task force' rolls out platform recommendations House eyes votes to remove symbols of Confederates from Capitol 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 CostaBlack Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel Let's support and ensure the safety of workers risking so much for us Five factors to watch in the meat supply chain crisis 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 SchumerA renewed emphasis on research and development funding is needed from the government Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs Trump may be DACA participants' best hope, but will Democrats play ball? MORE (N.Y.), former presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: Facebook civil rights audit finds 'serious setbacks' | Facebook takes down Roger Stone-affiliated accounts, pages | State and local officials beg Congress for more elections funds OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 | Park Police did not record radio transmissions during June 1 sweep of White House protesters | Court upholds protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears GOP Miami mayor does not commit to voting for Trump MORE and New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoNew Jersey to require masks outdoors New York City schools will reopen, limiting attendance to 1 to 3 days a week Watch live: NY Gov. Cuomo holds press briefing on coronavirus 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.”