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Battle heats up for House Foreign Affairs gavel

Battle heats up for House Foreign Affairs gavel
© Greg Nash

Reps. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroSunday shows preview: Washington prepares for an inauguration and impeachment; coronavirus surges across the US Pelosi names 9 impeachment managers Lawmaker to unveil bill ensuring nothing — 'no airport, no highway, no school' — is named after Trump MORE (D-Texas) and Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksHouse Democrats introduce measures to oppose Trump's bomb sale to Saudis Trust between lawmakers reaches all-time low after Capitol riots Lawmakers push back on late Trump terror designation for Yemen's Houthis MORE (D-N.Y.) are facing off for the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, with the contest for the gavel going to a caucus-wide vote on Thursday.

Meeks won the endorsement of the Democratic House Steering and Policy Committee on Tuesday, garnering 29 votes from committee members. Castro received 13 votes, and Rep. Brad ShermanBradley (Brad) James ShermanBottom line 150 House Democrats support Biden push to reenter Iran nuclear deal Democrats elect Meeks as first Black Foreign Affairs chairman MORE (D-Calif.), who has since withdrawn from consideration, received 10.

The two-way race is expected to be a tighter contest in the full caucus, when it will take on the feel of a proxy battle between Democratic leadership and the more progressive wing of the party.

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Meeks, who is 67 years old and the third-ranking member on the committee, has the support of Democratic leaders, while the 11th-ranking Castro, 46, has backing from party progressives.

Caucus members typically follow the endorsement of the Steering and Policy Committee and the large gap between Meeks and Castro signals a strong show of support from key leaders and influential senior members of the Democratic caucus for the New York lawmaker, who came to Congress in 1998.

Castro supporters argue that despite his vote tally on Tuesday, the four-term lawmaker has already succeeded by helping challenge the tradition of seniority for top leadership posts. His outspoken campaign for the gavel and outside endorsements have also put more attention on the committee to hold it accountable, proponents say.

“It’s quite clear at this point there’s going to be a significant change in the committee,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said of the campaign between Meeks and Castro.

“I suspect that we’re going to see a different kind of hearing taking place, one in which a willingness to reassess some of the fundamentals of America’s engagement in the world, America’s role in the world, taking place in a way we have not seen before.”

Parsi has not taken a position in the race between Meeks and Castro.

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The two lawmakers represent a generational and geographic divide. Meeks grew up in a public housing project in East Harlem, coming of age in the late 1960s. Castro was born in San Antonio, the grandson of a Mexican immigrant and the son of Latino-community activists.

But they are closely aligned on foreign policy priorities and their vision for the committee.

Their voting records largely reflect the mainstream Democratic caucus positions, while at the same time garnering reputations as pushing a progressive foreign policy agenda with an emphasis on diplomacy and rebuilding and strengthening foreign alliances.

They both have called for reinvigorating the State Department, prioritizing climate change in foreign policy, putting a stronger emphasis on promoting human rights, confronting China, engaging with allies in the Western Hemisphere and increasing U.S. focus on Africa and Asia.

Meeks has over two-decades of experience in Congress and is a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, a forum made up of elected officials from the alliance’s participating countries.

He would be the first Black lawmaker to chair the committee, which many have noted would send a powerful message to the world following mass protests and civil unrest over the summer against systemic racism.

Sherman, the second-ranking member on the committee, noted Meeks’s strong endorsement by the Steering and Policy Committee and Castro’s leadership skills.

“The Steering and Policy Committee recognized Gregory Meeks’s capacity, eloquence, and experience, and the fact that he would make history as the first African American Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee,” Sherman said in a statement. 

“Joaquin Castro has acquitted himself well and has shown that he is one of the leaders of the present, and of the future.”

Castro is a member of the House Intelligence Committee and had earlier served on the Armed Services Committee, which his supporters say gives him an advantageous perspective on efforts to promote diplomacy over military intervention.

Castro’s supporters also point out that he too would be a powerful symbol of racial diversity and a commitment to improving relations with America’s southern neighbors after four years of the Trump administration’s hard-line policies against illegal immigration.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), which Castro chairs, endorsed his bid for the gavel and noted he would be the first Mexican American to chair the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Rep. Castro is the only candidate that heads a foreign affairs panel, serves on the intelligence committee and has committed to taking climate into account when assessing foreign policy,” Zoe Bluffstone, spokesperson for Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), second vice-chair of the CHC, said in a statement to The Hill.

“In a time when our House Democratic majority will be razor-thin, Congressman Castro will be a bridge builder who can speak to all parts of our caucus.”

The Texas congressman received endorsements from more than 60 outside progressive groups. Additionally, 35 national groups sent a letter to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCowboys for Trump founder arrested following Capitol riot Retired Army general: 'We can't have demonstrators showing up at a state Capitol with damn long guns' Graham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump MORE (D-Calif.) voicing their support for Castro. The letter was circulated among colleagues by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

“Young Americans are getting engaged across this country and making their voices heard, including calling for an end to the post-9/11 wars and prioritizing global climate justice and poverty alleviation,” the letter read.

“The HFAC chair election can be an important step towards acknowledging the benefits that generational diversity can bring in terms of both fresh ideas and new interest and engagement in the legislative process among younger Americans.”

Andrew Albertson, executive director of Foreign Policy for America, a nonpartisan advocacy organization promoting diplomacy and principles-based foreign policy, said that Meeks and Castro will each champion a “diplomacy-first foreign policy” and are committed to key legislative priorities for the next Congress.

“They’re both going to move heaven and earth to pass the State Department authorization bill. They're both going to champion ramped up investment in diplomacy and our other non-military tools for engaging the world. With Iran, they’re both going to support the Biden Administration's return to compliance with the [Iran nuclear agreement] and its negotiations from there,” he said.

“In that respect, although they come at it from different track records, we are excited for either one of them to lead the committee forward.”