Gregory Meeks wins key recommendation for Foreign Affairs chairmanship

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Rep. Brad Sherman announced he would withdraw his name ahead of the full caucus vote on Thursday

U.S. Congress

The House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee recommended Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) as their candidate to succeed outgoing Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) as chair of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) on Tuesday evening. 

Twenty-nine members of the steering committee voted for Meeks, who has the support of the Congressional Black Caucus. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-TX) garnered the support of 13 members, while Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) received 10 votes.

The recommendation gives Meeks a boost as the favorite to win the gavel in a vote by the full caucus on Thursday. 

“This is now what was expected to happen,” a Democratic staffer told JI after the committee vote was announced. “The question is, does Castro have a better strategy for the full vote?”

“The betting money is still on Meeks, but I think Castro has a viable pathway to making this happen,” the staffer added.

Sherman, who is currently the second-ranked Democrat on the panel, had hoped his seniority and relationships on Capitol Hill would bolster his candidacy. “I think seniority is a very important factor, it’s always been very important to me in similar decisions,” Sherman told Jewish Insider in July after announcing his bid for the seat, which Engel is vacating following his June primary loss. 

Sherman’s previous efforts to lead Democrats in the committee fell short in 2012, when Engel was chosen to be the committee’s ranking member, despite Sherman’s position as the longest-serving HFAC member. Bruised after a heated congressional race against Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) following redistricting in California, Sherman withdrew from the 2012 contest ahead of the committee’s vote and supported Engel. 

Following Tuesday’s vote, Sherman announced that he was dropping out of the race and would not move forward to the full caucus vote on Thursday.

Engel, who gained the chairmanship after Democrats took control of the House in 2018, focused on maintaining strong bipartisan support for Israel. Engel hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the race. “I’ve stayed out of it because I think it’s not right for me as I’m leaving to say who I want to replace me,” Engel told JI in a recent interview. “I think they’re all capable people doing it. I’ve done lots and lots of things with Gregory Meeks through the years; we both represent districts in New York. Brad Sherman has been a good friend. So, we have competent leadership.”

Meeks and Sherman, who both entered Congress in the late ‘90s, represent the House’s Democratic establishment and have similar voting records on Middle East issues, while Castro, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has the support of the progressive wing of the party — and, backed by organizations like the Justice Dems, is seeking to challenge the longstanding bipartisan approach to open the door for a wider array of voices on issues related to the Middle East, including on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Castro has run an atypically public campaign for the position, appealing to the party’s grassroots elements and defining a clear platform, the Democratic staffer said. Ultimately, though, “outside politics is only so relevant,” the staffer added. “The only people who matter are the members of the Democratic caucus.”

In recent weeks, the candidates appeared in virtual candidate forums hosted by Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), the American Jewish Committee and J Street.

“As important as committee chairs are in the House process, on vitally important issues no one person exercises absolute control,” DMFI President and CEO Mark Mellman told JI. “But there is no question that the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has substantial influence on how the House acts on foreign policy-oriented legislation, and can do a lot to set the tone, can do a lot to further some legislation and hold back others.” 

Former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), who retired in 2014 after 20 terms, told JI on Tuesday that he anticipates that the committee will regain some influence on foreign policy matters under a Biden administration “by virtue of the hearings it will hold and the reports it might do on various areas of U.S. foreign policy.” 

Waxman also expressed hope that the committee will maintain its bipartisan approach in the 117th Congress. “Foreign policy has not in the past been as politicized or partisan as it had been under President Trump, who made everything partisan,” he explained. “But I think it’s a committee that should be able to work on a bipartisan basis and can return to that.” 

Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, noted that the committee’s work would be “essential” to Biden’s efforts to rebuild the State Department. “I think that this committee should conduct a post mortem on what Trump’s practices, policies and budget have meant for our State Department, as well as our foreign policy to ensure that this does not happen again,” said Soifer, who was a senior foreign policy advisor to former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL). 

In that regard, Soifer stressed, all the three candidates “seem to be committed in doing that.”  

Mellman said that no matter who becomes chair, he hopes bipartisan support for Israel will be maintained on the panel. 

In campaigning for the position, Sherman touted his record on Israel, and attacked both Meeks and Castro for theirs, including the decision by Meeks and Castro not to attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 address to a joint session of Congress and their support for certain restrictions on U.S. military aid to Israel. 

In an interview with JI in July, Sherman described himself as “bookish” — contrasting himself with the more “gregarious” Meeks, but said, “ultimately that bookishness has a certain appeal when people think seriously about what level of knowledge and study is necessary to be an effective chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.” 

Meeks similarly sought to cast himself as a strong backer of Israel — pushing back against Sherman’s accusations that he was not supportive of unconditioned U.S. aid to Israel. The New York congressman also said he is “absolutely opposed” to the Trump administration’s plan to sell F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates. 

Castro pledged changes to the way the committee has approached the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if he wins the chairmanship, emphasizing that he wants to bring Palestinian voices and their advocates before the committee.

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