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Castro to challenge Democratic Party elders for committee chair amid reckoning on foreign policy

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) speaks to reporters outside the Capitol in March. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas will announce this week that he will compete for the chairmanship of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, according to congressional aides familiar with his planning, in an effort aimed at recapturing a key position for the party’s liberal wing after years of centrist leadership.

The decision will pit Castro, a four-term House member and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, against more senior colleagues in contention for the gavel: Rep. Brad Sherman of California and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks of New York.

But the move is also seen as an effort by liberals to redefine the party’s priorities on foreign policy after the apparent election defeat of the committee’s chairman, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, by a former middle school principal who is antiwar.

“I believe our approach should be diplomacy first as a nation and that there’s an opportunity for the Foreign Affairs Committee to include voices that have been left out in the past and to cover topics that we’ve not always gotten around to,” Castro said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Castro, Meeks and Sherman all declined to explicitly announce their bids as votes continue to be counted for Engel’s primary against Jamaal Bowman in New York’s 16th Congressional District. But with Bowman leading Engel by double digits, each lawmaker has begun the work of calling colleagues and building support for the plum position.

Engel, a 16-term incumbent who is liberal on domestic issues and a hawk on foreign policy, voted for the Iraq War, was against President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and opposed numerous attempts to criticize Israel for its settlement expansion in the West Bank. Though his likely defeat has been attributed to lackluster campaigning, including a hot mic gaffe and his decision to spend much of the coronavirus pandemic in his Maryland home while his district was ravaged by the virus, his opponent harshly criticized his votes on the Iraq War and Iran nuclear deal.

In anticipation of Engel’s defeat, 60 liberal organizations have signed a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and other top Democrats urging them to end the “disconnect” between the leadership of the Foreign Affairs Committee “and the rest of the House Democratic Caucus regarding the United States’ most consequential foreign policy issues, such as the Iraq War, President Obama’s diplomatic agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program, and the Trans Pacific Partnership,” according to a draft of the letter obtained by The Post.

One of the organizers of the letter, Yasmine Taeb of Demand Progress, said the public is “tired of endless wars and a destructive agenda of rampant militarization. Hawkish Eliot L. Engel was repudiated at the ballot box on the right-wing policies he pursued by an explicitly antiwar candidate.”

A spokesman for Engel declined to comment.

Democrats, who place no term limits on influential chairmanships, award the positions through a mix of seniority, popularity and backroom dealmaking. Oftentimes, rival Democrats will drop out before a vote is held to avoid embarrassment if they don’t have the support of the caucus. The chairmanship gives a lawmaker broad discretion and resources for highlighting specific foreign policy issues and investigating the nation’s vast foreign policy apparatus.

The two lawmakers most favored to win the chairmanship are Sherman and Meeks.

Sherman is the most senior member of the committee, but he has ruffled feathers with some Democratic colleagues in the past. Like Engel, he voted for the Iraq War and opposed the Iran nuclear deal.

In an interview, Sherman acknowledged his hawkish record on Middle East policy but underscored his more liberal outlook on what may be the most consequential foreign policy challenge of the 21st century: the U.S. relationship with China.

“The Pentagon needs a worthy adversary to justify a huge increase in budget and China is it,” Sherman said.

He said the defense industry and other foreign policy hawks inflate the threat posed by China’s construction of artificial islands and overstate the danger to international shipping in the South China Sea.

“Whenever the Pentagon has faced an irregular force, it’s been a miserable experience,” he said, referring to militias and terrorist groups. “But whenever our military has faced a symmetrical, uniformed opponent, it has been glorious. So it’s not surprising the Pentagon is looking for a symmetrical opponent that justifies a bigger budget.”

Meeks, though slightly less senior than Sherman, is popular inside the party and is said to enjoy the support of the Congressional Black Caucus. He would be the first African American to chair the committee at a time when national protests over racial injustice have underscored to Democrats the importance of diversifying the party’s leadership. He also does not have the albatross of Iraq hanging around his neck (he opposed the war), and he supported the Iran nuclear deal.

His Democratic critics on the Hill have questioned whether the mild-mannered lawmaker would be outspoken enough in the event Trump wins reelection and have pointed out that he hasn’t filed any bills of significance to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the past decade.

Meeks dismissed those criticisms in an interview, saying he has been active on a variety of policy issues around the globe as a co-chairman of the European Union Caucus and the Dialogue Caucus, and as a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, as well as on matters related to Venezuela and Colombia.

“I would put up my competency next to anybody’s,” Meeks said.

If trusted with a more senior leadership role, Meeks said, he would concentrate on bringing lawmakers together and push for changes at the State Department that encourage diversity and create more opportunities “based on the backgrounds of where individuals come from.”

Meeks’s popularity in the caucus is an important asset in the chairman’s race and could be decisive, said Daniel Harsha, a former professional staff member of the committee who worked under two different chairmen.

“This is like high school. You want to be good at making friends, and Mr. Meeks has been effective at that,” he said.

This year’s competitive race for the chairmanship may bring into the open the party’s decision-making process, which is typically conducted behind closed doors, an outcome some Democrats said would be welcomed.

“There are a lot of Americans who want to have more say in what Congress does on foreign policy, and oftentimes the chairmanship race is a very closed race determined by existing relationships and rules,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

Castro, the most junior member seeking the position, said it is overdue for the committee to reexamine its mission and not shy away from challenging politically powerful interests and rolling back America’s military commitments.

“Our foreign affairs committee needs to catch up with where Democrats are in terms of foreign policy,” he said. “Over the years, there have been top many voices excluded; I think too often Palestinian voices have been excluded. If the United States is going to be an arbiter of peace, it has to be willing to hear from the different sides, and in my estimation we’ve not always done that.”