This Thursday, John Kerry will sit before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — the same committee he testified before 42 years ago as a Vietnam War protester, and the same committee he now chairs — to face his nomination hearing to become the 68th secretary of state of the United States.
Without a doubt, Senator Kerry will be confirmed. But everything in the 113th Congress, this would-be formality will devolve into a nasty partisan fight. Even before questioning begins, Kerry’s hearing is going to tainted by association, since it comes the day after Hillary Clinton’s hotly anticipated testimony about the attacks in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.
But aside from an unpleasant round of pointed questions about future security (and a few about Kerry’s old hopes for Syria as a source of peace and stability), this predictable partisan jockeying will be a sideshow to a deeper, uglier, battle going on within the ranks of the committee.
The key piece of Thursday’s hearing to pay attention to is going to be how internal rifts within the new Republican side of the SFRC will manifest themselves in Kerry’s questioning. They will tell us a lot about how this Congress will face, among other things, the draw down of America’s longest war.
This split is embodied by two of the committee’s newest and most well known members: Senators John McCain and Rand Paul. Some call this divide by a misleading historical name, with “isolationist” Paul vs. a “hawkish” McCain. But neither of these factions sees another war as representing the best interests for the U.S., nor do they want to see the U.S. withdraw from the world stage only to let China take its place. Rather, the divide can be boiled down to the respective camps’ fiscal philosophies, with Paul seeking big cuts to foreign aid to “starve the beast,” while McCain supports a more hands-on approach to support democratic values abroad. But the McCain way costs money, and thus is incompatible with the Rand Paul camp.
Arching over all of this, too, is the consistent trend throughout Congress over the last decade to “rein in” the State Department and shift some funding and duties over to NGOs. “Oversight” is the watchword for this philosophy, and the new Republican Ranking Member, Senator Bob Corker, is a major proponent.
The back and forth on Thursday between Kerry and these members may be heated, but given his position, his answers will be tepid at best. The real battle going on in the Hart Building on Thursday will be among Republicans over what the tone of opposition will be for the next two years. While less overt, that fight could determine what does and does not get accomplished by Congress, State, and the White House in the next two years.