CQ WEEKLY: Senate's Young Guns Seek Foreign Policy Shift

By:  Gillian Roberts

The youngest Democrats in the Senate want to stake their claim on the party’s foreign policy agenda, and they hatched their plan in the most old school of ways — over dinner together.

While most senators refer to each other as “my friend,”Christopher S. MurphyBrian Schatz andMartin Heinrich actually are close friends. Which makes sense: They’re around the same age (41, 42 and 43, respectively), each has a young family and all entered the world’s most exclusive club around the same time.

The conversation at that dinner turned to their place in an evolving Senate.

“We were talking about how the old bulls of foreign policy have largely left the Senate over the course of the last five years — John Kerry, Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman,” says Murphy, who won the latter’s Connecticut seat in 2012. Schatz chimes in, “And Inouye,” whose Hawaii seat he was appointed to in December 2012 and won outright in 2014. Heinrich of New Mexico was elected to the Senate in 2012.

“That’s right, Danny Inouye,” Murphy continues. “We as a party have become somewhat dependent on the administration to do our big thinking on foreign policy and sort of construct our vision of the world going forward.”

That dinner culminated in a June 8 article in Foreign Affairs, which outlined eight principles for a progressive foreign policy. Their platform calls for “a new Marshall Plan for at-risk regions,” acting militarily only with congressional authorization and redoubled efforts to combat climate change.

The senators are well aware that their plans won’t be fully implemented anytime soon. But the senators are all from solidly Democratic states, so there’s a decent chance they’ll have the opportunity to shape the debate for many years.

“We all sort of came of age in the political world at a time when we were frustrated with what we saw going on in Iraq.” Heinrich says. “We have a responsibility to govern and provide alternatives so that we can do better the next time around.”

In the near term, the senators are using their perches on key committees to push their priorities. Schatz sits on the Appropriations panel and its Defense subcommittee; Murphy is on Foreign Relations; and Heinrich is on both Armed Services and Intelligence.

“A smart AUMF,” Murphy starts to say, and this time Heinrich interjects: “We should have it,” referring to an authorization for the use of military force against the Islamic State terrorist group.

“Yes,” Murphy says, “We should have it,” adding that if U.S. forces are engaged abroad, it should be to create the possibility for political, not military, solutions.

Schatz says he’s working to move funding toward combating the Islamic State’s digital presence. Heinrich notes he’s particularly proud of the Intelligence Committee leaders’ success at getting a bipartisan amendment added to the fiscal 2016 defense authorization (HR 1735) barring torture.

The three men regularly stick together when in Washington, and joke easily in each other’s presence. Schatz hastens to add that their plan didn’t come about after the “second cocktail.” They organized a series of sit-downs with experts, they say, of impressive intellectual caliber.

“When we were rank-and-file House members, we might not have had as strong a salon for a couple years,” says Murphy, who served in the House with Heinrich.

The salons were not exclusive. Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who Schatz described as “close” colleagues, sometimes joined in. Murphy says he hopes those get-togethers continue.

The young trio’s partnership is also not limited to foreign policy. Heinrich and Schatz have teamed up on energy policy, and Murphy and Schatz have worked together on college affordability issues.

“We’re friends and we have a lot of mutual respect,” Schatz says. “We’re working together where there’s opportunity that presents itself.”