Defense Committees Will See New Leadership, Regardless of Election Results

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., attend a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Sept. 16, 2014.

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Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., attend a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Sept. 16, 2014.

Whatever the results of Tuesday’s midterm election, key congressional committees on national security will see a shakeup. By Molly O’Toole

Republicans appear to have the momentum to gain the six seats they need to take the Senate in Tuesday’s midterm elections. But the possibility of runoffs in Georgia and Louisiana means the majority could remain undecided into the next Congress.

Even if Democrats lose Senate control, Republicans aren’t expected to snag many seats beyond a small majority. Regardless of the results, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees will get new leadership, and several other key national security committees could see a changeover if Republicans take control of the Senate.

Here’s a look at how things could shake up after Tuesday’s midterm elections:

Armed Services

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., are retiring this year after serving 18 terms and nearly 60 years between them.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., is in line to take over the committee if the Democrats keep the Senate, and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., would likely remain ranking member. Levin endorsed Reed for the job last year, and he is known as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker and “strong on defense” Democrat with robust support from the defense industry. Like Levin, Reed is close to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, an important partnership as the Pentagon pursues more cost savings, such as another round of base closures, and further relief from sequestration. The Rhode Island Democrat is also a Vietnam veteran. He currently chairs the Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower, and also serves on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

But Reed’s aide said Thursday he has not decided whether he wants to chair SASC or the banking committee, where he is also the senior-most Democrat behind a retiring chairman, and that he will decide after the elections, in consultation with colleagues.

Next in line for SASC would then be Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who currently chairs the Special Committee on Aging. Nelson recently introduced a resolution for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, allowing for American boots on the ground but not a “recurring military presence.

Nelson is followed in seniority by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor, has become a leading voice on the committee through her work on military reforms to address sexual assault and the creation of a subcommittee on oversight on government contracts and waste, for which she serves as chair.

If Republicans take the Senate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former presidential nominee and the GOP’s best-known face on defense, would at last take the gavel he’s long coveted. (McCain maxed out his 6-year term as ranking member in 2013, but he is the most senior Republican on the committee.)

McCain would surely use this new perch to push for more decisive military action as a response to any number of the current security crises in which the U.S. is enmeshed. In recent hearings, he has aggressively asserted the Obama administration was too quick to withdraw from Iraq, leading to the rise of the Islamic State – a mistake he says should not be repeated with the war in Afghanistan, which will formally end on Dec. 31.

McCain also serves as ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on investigations, and has criticized waste and fraud in the government, making him no friends among the defense industry, according to Politico.  

On the House side, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is McKeon’s pick to take over the House Armed Services Committee.

Thornberry has been working with Frank Kendall, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition, on major reform to try and streamline the military’s procurement process. The senior member of the House Intelligence Committee also has the support of industry and investors, as he has been a staunch opponent of cuts to defense.

But in the House, a steering committee will select chairmanships after the elections, and while seniority is often given priority, other lawmakers can make bids against a more senior member. Last week, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who chairs the subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, told Politico he will challenge Thornberry for the chairmanship, though he faces an uphill battle.

Foreign Relations

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., will hold onto the gavel if his party keeps its majority. Menendez has sponsored legislation in the past to repeal the war powers authorities the administration says it is relying on for current military operation against the Islamic State, and he is working on a draft for a new AUMF expected to be introduced shortly after Congress returns from recess.

Menendez has created headaches for the administration on policy toward Iran, authoring stricter sanctions legislation than the White House wanted amid complex negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. He took over the gavel when President Barack Obama nominated John Kerry to Secretary of State.  

If the Senate flips, the chairmanship would go to ranking member Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Menendez and Corker have a good working relationship on the committee, but some fellow Republicans have criticized Corker for being too moderate.  Corker has also called out the Obama administration for sidestepping Congress in the counterterrorism fight, and he has expressed skepticism of the administration’s strategy against the Islamic State, though he helped author the original bill to train and equip moderate rebels in Syria. He voted for authorization for a similar program in September, in the hopes, he said, that there will be a fuller debate on the broader military operation.


Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has been increasingly critical of the administration’s lack of transparency amid heightened scrutiny of the intelligence community, from revelations the National Security Agency has been conducting mass surveillance of Americans’ communications to the CIA spying on committee staffers.

If Republicans win the majority, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is next in line for the Intelligence chairmanship, since Ranking Member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., is retiring. Burr has been a strong supporter of the NSA and CIA and their surveillance activities. “I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly,” Burr said in March, according to Foreign Policy. “If I had my way, with the exception of nominees, there would never be a public intelligence hearing.”

But Burr would also have to choose between chairing Intelligence or the Veterans Affairs Committee, where he is the ranking member. The VA Committee is sure to remain in the spotlight as it continues to address reform legislation and accountability in the wake of the appointment wait times scandal that resulted in the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

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