116th Congress: Senate Foreign Relations Committee gets new Chair, three new Republican members

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The 116th Congress began on January 3rd, 2019, bringing new members to House and Senate committees addressing global health policies and funding. Science Speaks introduces you to those new members in this series.

The 116th Congress brings significant change to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a new chair whose record offers few — but significant — clues to his global health leanings, to three well-known, but new Republican members, all of who indicated varying views on the value of foreign aid.

SSen. Jim Risch (R-ID)

Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) – In his second Senate term, after a decade on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Risch will lead the committee that oversees the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and USAID, with jurisdiction over foreign assistance as well as the State Department. While predecessor Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) came to the committee leadership post with a record of interest in global health responses, and went on to take an active role in renewing authorization for PEPFAR, Sen. Risch’s investment in the “soft diplomacy” of international aid and disease responses is more difficult to gauge. His focus, according to his Senate site “on protecting the security and interests of the American people, [and] continuing to advance U.S. prosperity and leadership in the world” is compatible with global health response goals, as is his stated interest in “supporting human rights.” At the same time, during the 115th Congress he supported S.Res.15, “A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that the Mexico City policy” (also known as the “Global Gag Rule” because it bars U.S.-funded overseas health providers from providing referrals or information on terminating pregnancies) should be permanently established.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) – We will let new committee member Sen. Ted Cruz  speak for himself. Here he is in January 2016, when as a presidential candidate he was asked by Emily Sanderson, then of the Student Global AIDS Campaign about his commitment to ending HIV as an international public health threat:

A few months later a spokesman for his campaign seemed to support this commitment, according to this Devex article, saying “disease and terror,” would be the Texas Senator’s greatest concerns if elected to the highest office. The details that followed were less promising for global health response enthusiasts with the spokesman elaborating that Cruz had often called for “serious studies” to assess the disease-carrying potential of incoming immigrants, adding that “It used to be routine for immigrants to the United States to go through extensive medical checkups … This somehow now has turned into some kind of violation of some sort of right . . .” And,  according to Devex, the spokesman added, “I can be very fast about Sen. [Ted] Cruz’s Africa policy, because he doesn’t have one.” Then there’s this:

in which it takes a while, but the Senator/candidate explains “I do not believe we should be building health systems in foreign countries.” More effective, he adds would be strengthening “the rule of law.”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT)

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) – The former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate joins the United States Senate with two key committee memberships in which he can weigh in on, and sway global health responses; in addition to his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Romney also will sit on the  Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. This, then, is Part I — more, on what the new senator will bring to the committee with jurisdiction over public health as well as biomedical research and development programs, will follow in this 116th Congress series. In the meantime, with no previous foreign policy record, candidate Romney has projected two views of his global health philosophy. As a 2011 candidate for his party’s presidential nomination in New Hampshire Gov. Romney responded to town hall meeting attendees who asked how he would reconcile his support for deep federal funding cuts with his stated support for global HIV responses, saying: “At a time when we are borrowing money to pay for things… I’m very reluctant to borrow lots more money to be able to do wonderful things, if those things can be done by people making charitable contributions or by other countries that are wealthy…”  Months later, in a statement released on the eve of AIDS 2012, the candidate vowed:“We must overcome the global challenge of AIDS.” noting that the pandemic often affects “those least able to help themselves,” and asserted that the U.S. should continue to be “a beacon of hope for innovative research and support in overcoming the global challenge of AIDS.”

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC)

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) – As chair of the Senate State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee Sen. Graham called President Trump’s proposal to slash a billion from PEPFAR funding “radical and reckless.” When the subcommittee came back with a  bill that sustained global health spending, Graham said “We’re inside the 10-yard line in terms of the fight against AIDS in a bunch of African countries. Now is not the time to back off. Let’s pour it on.” Although the South Carolina senator voted against the act that reauthorized PEPFAR and Global Fund commitments in 2008, he earned a reputation as a global health champion over the course of his leadership of the subcommittee, and was the only member to question proposed cuts to PEPFAR funding in the Obama administration’s FY 2014 budget. During that period he also referred to the impact of PEPFAR funding, saying “I can’t think of a better example where a relatively small amount of money has such a huge impact. It would be a shame to pull the plug.”

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