The 2018 midterm elections will precipitate major transitions among GOP leadership. Given all the retirements and contested elections, no area will be affected more than in matters of foreign policy and national security. So, who will shape the conservative, establishment approach in Congress?
The looming leadership changes will affect both the House and the Senate, but they will perhaps be most pronounced in the Senate. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has long been the dominant force in setting the GOP’s foreign policy, but he hasn’t been in Washington since late last year. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the serious and assertive chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is retiring. This leaves Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as the GOP’s most seasoned Senate veteran who is willing and able to occupy the national security space with any sense of real authority. And after the midterms, he will be the GOP’s dominant voice on national security issues in Congress.
Others are making themselves heard. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is carving multiple lanes; and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., if he wants, could be a force as well from his position on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Burr’s term isn’t complete until 2022, and he announced in 2016 that he won’t run again for elected office. He will be uninhibited and have plenty of extra time.
So, who else? Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, would assume chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee if Republicans maintain the majority. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., will likewise have big shoes to fill on the Senate Armed Services Committee that McCain has chaired to implement policies across the national security spectrum. And of course Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will maintain his supremacy on all Senate maneuvering, thanks in no small part to having the most effective staff in Washington.
On the House side, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce, R-Calif., announced his retirement earlier this year, and so did House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has no real interest in foreign policy. Congressman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, term-limited as chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, has said he is “attracted” to leading the Foreign Affairs Committee, but I am skeptical Republicans will maintain a majority in the House.
Where does that leave the House GOP? Even as the committee’s ranking member, McCaul will matter. Someone to watch from the House Armed Services Committee is highly capable freshman Congressman Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a former Marine whose promoters say could be president someday. Also, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., could elevate her role on the House Armed Services Committee. She may only be a junior member, but her name is magic with a lot of the GOP old guard. Cheney has been quiet and not as visible on the Sunday talk shows or the think-tank circuit as many had expected, but that can and should change.
The Main Street sensibilities of businessmen-turned-statesmen Royce and Corker will be particularly missed, but all of the aforementioned congressman and senators are respectful of the United States’ traditional allies and will promote pragmatic, conservative policies. The larger issue in the new GOP will be how its members interact and react to the actions of the president. Will they be guardrails or enablers? While President Donald Trump rages across the globe, will they speak out when compelled in the model of McCain, work quietly and achieve results, or will they completely capitulate and go into hiding? Will they seek to continue a traditional foreign policy of working with allies, or will they embrace the confrontational, adversarial style of Trump? We will know more as the new order takes shape in the coming year.
Ed Rogers is a columnist with The Washington Post.