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70 progressive groups call for next Foreign Affairs chair to reflect 'progressive realism'

Progressive groups focused on foreign policy are pushing House Democratic leadership to ensure the next head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee supports a progressive agenda.

The push comes amid the likely departure of current chair Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who is trailing behind his progressive primary challenger as votes continue to be counted in his electoral district and not expected to make a comeback.  

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is considered one of the most influential in the House, charged with oversight of the State Department, foreign policy and international organizations and drafting legislation reflecting U.S. priorities around the globe. 

In a letter expected to be sent to Tuesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), dozens of progressive groups are calling for the next chair to advance "a vision of restraint and progressive realism in U.S. foreign policy."

The letter was first reported by The Washington Post 

It is being co-led by the progressive groups Demand Progress and Win Without War and includes 70 groups.

"The American people are tired of endless wars and a destructive agenda of rampant militarization," said Yasmine Taeb, the senior policy counsel at Demand Progress.

"Our domestic policies of police militarization, surveillance, institutionalized racism, and Islamophobia are inextricably linked to a militarized foreign policy. We're demanding a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy with someone at the helm of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who is not beholden to special interests, will turn the page on 9/11 policies, and committed to overhauling the committee."

Erica Fein, the advocacy director at Win Without War, said the signatories were motivated to push progressive values on national security issues.

"Our experience over the last several years since Democrats took the majority in the House was that those in positions of power needed to be pushed on national security issues, from demanding an end to U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen to dramatically reorienting security spending away from militarism and toward diplomacy and human needs," she wrote in an email to The Hill. 

"A progressive movement is demanding change on foreign policy; we hope Congressional Democrats are listening." 

While Democrats will still have to battle in November to retain their majority in the House, the race for the foreign affairs committee chairmanship is already underway

The race is understood to be taking place between Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the most senior member of the committee behind Engel, and third-ranking Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who is likely to have the support of the Democrats' powerful Congressional Black Caucus. 

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) is also expected to announce his campaign for chairmanship, the Washington Post reported. Despite his junior status on the committee, he holds the position of vice chair and is chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations.  

The letter doesn't state support for any one candidate. Progressive groups say they are at this moment laying out the principles they want Democrats to evaluate before voting for the next chair.  

The groups argue that the Foreign Affairs Committee has for years pursued foreign policy that was disconnected from positions held from the House Democratic Caucus, particularly on the issues of the Iraq War, President Obama's negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

Engel, who assumed the chairmanship in 2018 when Democrats took control of the House in midterm elections, has promoted human rights agenda while on the committee but is seen by progressive groups as too hawkish on foreign policy - voting for the Iraq war, against the Iran nuclear deal and speaking out against Obama's TPP.

"We ask that you take this opportunity to support someone for committee chair who has a demonstrated track record of foreign policy leadership reflecting the principles, priorities, and aspirations of both the Democratic Caucus and rank-and-file Democratic voters," the letter says. 

The letter goes on to outline at least 10 policy positions that argue for promoting diplomacy over militarization; limiting weapons sales to foreign countries; rolling back sanctions; "supporting a just solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict"; grounding policy in people and protecting the climate, among other policy positions. 

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