The 113th Congress, a Look at the 2014 Mid-Term Elections and the Countdown to the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide
By Taniel Koushakjian
FLArmenians Political Contributor
With the House of Representatives remaining in Republican control and the Senate and White House again in Democratic hands, another session of a divided Congress began on January 3, 2013. Major domestic issues facing Americans will be the top priority for the 113th Congress, most likely stretching into the 114th Congress and potentially even beyond that. Immigration reform, tax reform, job creation, deficit reduction, reducing gun violence, civil liberties for the LGBT community, and women’s rights all top the agenda for elected officials, rightfully so. But foreign policy, international religious freedom and human rights issues have the potential to grab headlines, especially in light of the U.S. draw down in Afghanistan, the effects of the Arab Spring, and the civil war in Syria have all shown. Every one of these issues, domestic and foreign, impact Armenian-Americans in some way, thus begging the question: In this polarized political climate and with a laundry list of serious problems facing Congress and the White House, what does this mean for Armenian-Americans two years away from the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide?
Congressman John Boehner (R-OH) was re-elected to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives for the 113th Congress. Reps. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) were re-elected to serve as Majority Leader and Majority Whip, respectively. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Republican Vice Presidential nominee and a leader in the House Republican Conference, was re-elected to his House seat and will remain the Chairman of the powerful Budget Committee. Leader Cantor and Chairman Ryan sit on the Armenian Caucus and, together with McCarthy, have all cosponsored Armenian Genocide resolutions. On the Democratic side, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) also resumed their posts. Pelosi and Hoyer also sit on the Armenian Caucus and have decades-long records on Armenian issues in Congress. Democrats gained twelve seats in the last election leaving Republicans in control of the chamber by a narrower margin, 232-200.
Two seats are currently vacant and impact Armenian issues: Illinois’ 2nd district where, despite his re-election last November, Armenian Caucus Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) resigned, plead guilty and currently faces up to five years in prison for his personal use of campaign funds; and South Carolina’s 1st district where Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC) was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). Former Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) resigned in 2009 after admitting to an extramarital affair and is running to win back his old House seat. In 2000, then-Congressman Sanford was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (then called the House International Relations Committee) and voted YES during the committee vote on the Armenian Genocide resolution. Last week, Sanford won the Republican primary and will face Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Bush, the sister of popular comedian Stephen Colbert. Although the South Carolina 1st seat is heavily Republican (Mitt Romney carried the district over President Obama 58-40), Colbert Bush is waging a strong campaign and is in a statistical tie with Sanford according to a recent poll. The special elections in Illinois and South Carolina will be held on April 9, and May 7, 2013, respectively.
For the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also reassumed their posts. Both Reid and McConnell have significant records in support of Armenian issues. Reid is considered a champion of Armenian issues, having cosponsored successive Armenian Genocide resolutions. Last year, the Armenian National Committee of America honored Senator Reid. In August 1997, Senator McConnell travelled to Armenia and two years later led the charge against a pro-Azerbaijan amendment proposed by then-Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) that would have repealed Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act (Public Law 102-511), which bars direct U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan given the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Azerbaijan (1988-1990), the ensuing Nagorno-Karabakh War (1991-1994), and Azerbaijan’s blockade of Armenia (1994-Present). Although McConnell was successful in defeating the amendment and protecting Armenia, a watered down version of Brownback’s amendment eventually came to pass in 2001, granting the President the authority to waive Section 907 and provide U.S. military assistance to Azerbaijan, which the President has since done on an annual basis. Democrats gained two seats in the Senate in 2012 and now control the chamber 55-45 (two Independent Senators caucus with Democrats).
[READ: Campaign 2012: A Review of Armenian-American Advocacy Organizations in Presidential Elections]
Like the previous Congress, both Republican and Democratic leaders in the 113th Congress each have strong records in support of Armenian-American issues, specifically Senate Majority Leader Reid, Senate Minority Leader McConnell, House Majority Leader Cantor, House Majority Whip McCarthy, House Budget Chairman Ryan, House Minority Leader Pelosi and House Minority Whip Hoyer.
Looking at the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), the committee of jurisdiction for the Armenian Genocide resolution, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) is term limited according to House Republican Conference rules, stepped down as chairman of the committee, but will remain on as the Subcommittee Chair for the Middle East and North Africa. As FLArmenians previously reported, Ros-Lehtinen has an inconsistent record on Armenian issues, having voted YES on the Armenian Genocide resolution in 2000 and 2005, but NO in 2007 and 2010. She also sits on both the Armenian and Turkish Caucus. With Ros-Lehtinen’s transition, Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) has taken the gavel as Chairman for the 113th Congress, with pro-Armenia Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) serving as Ranking Member. Tied with California, Florida Representatives account for the largest delegation serving on the HFAC (7 out of 46) namely Ros-Lehtinen, and Reps. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Trey Radel (R-FL), Ted Yoho (R-FL), Ted Deutch (D-FL), Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Lois Frankel (D-FL).
Hellenic Caucus Co-Chair and Armenian Caucus member Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) is no longer serving on HFAC. In addition to Bilirakis, pro-Armenian Representatives departing the HFAC in 113th Congress include Reps. Donald Manzullo (R-IL), Howard Berman (D-CA), Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), and Christopher Murphy (D-CT). Congressman Manzullo (R-IL), who voted YES on Armenian Genocide resolution votes in committee in 2007 and 2010, lost a bitter primary battle. Due to redistricting, he was forced to run against his fellow Republican colleague and Turkish Caucus Member Adam Kinzinger (R-IL). In an unusual move, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor got involved in the race. Cantor publicly endorsed Kinzinger over Manzullo, donated $10,000 to him from his leadership PAC while “The YG Action Fund” Super PAC – run by a former Cantor aide – spent $52,000 on a radio ad boosting Kinzinger,” according to a report in Roll Call. Furthermore, Kinzinger received $6,500 from Turkish PACs last cycle, a bet that seems to have paid off. HFAC Ranking Member Howard Berman was also a victim of redistricting, where he lost his seat to fellow Democratic colleague Brad Sherman (D-CA). As FLArmenians reported last year, the Berman-Sherman race was sure to grab national headlines, and it did. In addition to both sides spending a record $16 million, at one point the two Congressmen almost got into a physical altercation during a town hall debate. Armenian Caucus member Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA) easily won re-election last year, but will not sit on the HFAC in the 113th Congress. According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rep. Schwartz is interested in leaving her House seat behind in a run for Governor in 2014. Armenian Caucus member Christopher Murphy (D-CT) did not seek re-election last year, and instead successfully ran for Senate where he replaced retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT).
Pro-Turkey members departing the HFAC in the 113th Congress include Reps. Dan Burton (R-IN), Mike Pence (R-IN), Connie Mack (R-FL), Jean Schmidt (R-OH), and Russ Carnahan (D-MO). Congressman Burton announced his retirement last year and did not seek re-election. In February, Burton was named chairman of the board of the Azerbaijan American Alliance. Rep. Pence was elected Governor of Indiana last year, while Congressman Mack unsuccessfully ran for the Florida Senate, giving up his House seat in the process. Both Reps. Jean Schmidt and Russ Carnahan lost their respective party primary election and were not even on the ballot in November. However, the circumstances surrounding Jean Schmidt’s stunning primary loss, as well as the loss of her two-time opponent, Armenian-American David Krikorian (D-OH), warrants a deeper look. As FLArmenians reported last year, Schmidt and Krikorian faced off at the ballot box in 2008 and 2010, and in an Ohio election courtroom in 2011. A number of factors contributed to Schmidt’s ousting in addition to her ethics woes: she was an incumbent, was opposed by the Tea-Party, she had new territory in her district as a result of redistricting, and she did very little campaigning to keep her job, if at all. In fact, on the day of the primary election, Schmidt wasn’t even in Ohio; she was in Washington, D.C. attending a private luncheon with Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States Namik Tan, according to a report in POLITICO. In August 2011 the House Ethics Committee ordered Schmidt to repay the more than $500,000 she “unknowingly accepted” to the Turkish Coalition of America when she was found guilty of accepting the free legal services as an improper gift, but cleared of wrongdoing. To date, Schmidt has only made one payment toward her debt. However, since she is no longer serving in Congress she gets to “cleanly walk away from this,” the Dayton Daily News reported. As for Krikorian, he too lost his primary battle, but the writing wasn’t so much on the wall for him as it was for Schmidt. William R. Smith, a local truck driver and political unknown who spent no money and did no campaigning whatsoever trumped Krikorian by 59 votes out of roughly 20,000 cast. Kirkorian campaigned hard, raised money, travelled the district and had the backing of the local and state Democratic Party. However, a report in USATODAY attributes Krikorian’s upset to a last minute effort by a mysterious Super PAC that sponsored a number of robo-calls encouraging voters to back Smith.
Today, nine of the 46 members of the HFAC sit on the Armenian Caucus, whereas thirteen sit on the Turkish Caucus. Nearly half of the HFAC in the 113th Congress are freshman (22) and it is not yet clear who will join the Armenian or Turkish Caucus. Technically a member of the 113th freshman class, Rep. Alan Grayson served in Congress from 2008-2010 and was an original cosponsor of the Armenian Genocide resolution. Also, despite the fact that Congressman Deutch has never cosponsored the Armenian Genocide resolution, he did vote YES during the successful committee vote in 2010.
Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen was also appointed to the House Rules Committee in the 113th Congress, a top leadership body that oversees what legislation is actually brought up and passed by the House of Representatives. This committee is significant should any legislation reaffirming the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide be brought to the floor for a vote in the run up to 2015. In fact, Florida currently holds four out of the 13-committee seats, which also includes Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), who helped lead Democratic efforts to defeat the Armenian Genocide resolution in 2007. Last year, the Turkish Coalition of America sponsored a trip for Ros-Lehtinen to Turkey, where she was reunited with her Turkish relatives. Looking ahead, Turkish Caucus Co-Chair and Rules Committee Vice-Chairman Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) is considered the Republican front-runner to challenge Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) in 2014. Congresswoman Foxx’s son-in-law is Turkish and she is a top recipient of Turkish PAC contributions. A January 10-13, 2013 poll conducted by Democrat leaning Public Policy Polling showed Foxx leading the crowded Republican field with 21%, but also showed Hagan over Foxx by 7% in a direct match up. Although the 2012 Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mitt Romney carried the state with 51%. Rep. Foxx’s potential departure from the Rules Committee removes one obstacle, but her election to the Senate would create a different one. Meanwhile, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s addition to the “Speaker’s Committee” appears to have created another hurdle for human rights proponents, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she will be.
[READ: Campaign 2012: A Look Through the Armenian-American Lens]
On the other side of Capitol Hill, Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman and former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (D-MA) was nominated by President Obama and quickly confirmed as the 68th U.S. Secretary of State. The Armenian Assembly of America, the largest independent Armenian-American advocacy group, recalled Kerry’s numerous actions in support of Armenian issues. Departing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, considered the leading Democratic contender for the White House in 2016, played a significant role in the signing of historic Protocols by the governments of Turkey and Armenia in 2009 that envisioned the establishment and normalization of relations between the two countries, as well as the end of Turkey’s blockade of Armenia. Although the Protocols stalled in the Turkish Parliament, Clinton has been on record multiple times urging Turkish government officials at senior levels to follow through on their international commitment.
Also departing Obama’s cabinet is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was succeeded by former Senator Charles Hagel (R-KS), albeit with some Senate consternation. Hagel’s nomination is concerning to Armenian-Americans. An article in the Washington Free Beacon entitled “Chuck Hagel has an Armenian Problem,” recalled a 2005 statement where he declared that “What happened in 1915 happened in 1915” and that the Armenian Genocide should be left “to historians and others to decide what happened and why.” Also of import to Armenian-Americans is the departure of Samantha Power, Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council (NSC). Power is well known in Armenian-American circles for her book “A Problem From Hell” which extensively covers the Armenian Genocide, and for her assurances to the Armenian-American community during the 2008 campaign that Obama would keep his promise and recognize the Armenian Genocide as President. Washington insiders consider Power as Obama’s top pick to be the next U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, should Susan Rice be nominated to head the NSC. In addition, Phillip Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State for European & Eurasian Affairs, has left his post to join President Obama in the White House. He served as Secretary Clinton’s hand during the signing of the historic Armenia-Turkey Protocols. Current State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland is expected to replace Gordon.
Kerry’s departure from the Senate resulted in the promotion of pro-Armenia Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to Chairman of the powerful SFRC. Menendez has been a champion of Armenian issues for over a decade and is one of the Senate’s strongest proponents of human rights, religious freedom, and Armenian-American issues. Kerry’s departure also results in an open Senate seat in Massachusetts, home to the second largest Armenian community in the U.S. Scott Brown (R-MA), who shocked the nation when he won the 2010 special election to replace deceased Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), announced, fresh off his 2012 re-election loss, that he would not run to replace Kerry. Much to the chagrin of the Massachusetts GOP, Brown would have been the strongest Republican candidate in the field, and instead is reportedly eyeing the Governor’s mansion in 2014. Should Brown have run to replace Kerry this year, he would have been forced to run for re-election again next year. That amounts to four very expensive campaigns for Senate in four years, something no politician has ever faced, and a natural conclusion for Brown not to seek the seat. For Armenian-Americans, it was interesting that with eight months remaining before the 2012 election Brown introduced the Senate version of the “Return of Churches,” a bill that called on the Republic of Turkey to safeguard its Christian heritage and return stolen church properties. As FLArmenians previously reported, the House version of this bill passed the lower chamber last year, but Brown’s bill went nowhere and was perceived as a last-ditch effort to secure the Armenian-American vote. Brown lost his re-election in 2012 to Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who met with Armenian-Americans at the Democratic National Convention last year and pledged her support of Armenian issues, particularly genocide affirmation. Upon his election to the Senate in 2010, Brown refused to cosponsor the Armenian Genocide resolution, a mistake that proved consequential in his re-election effort. With Brown out, many expect the Massachusetts Senate seat to remain in Democratic hands. The two Democratic contenders are both members of the Armenian Caucus: Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Stephen Lynch (D-MA). Recent polling in the state gives Markey the edge, in addition to Democratic establishment support. However, Lynch has strong union backing and is expected to mount a tough campaign in the Bay State. The Massachusetts Senate special election is scheduled for June 25, 2013.
[READ: Armenian-Americans at RNC 2012: Support Mitt Romney for President]
Florida’s senior Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has left the SFRC, while Florida’s junior Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) remains on the committee. Rubio is a top contender in the Republican field for the White House in 2016 and delivered the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this year. Senators Nelson and Rubio have no record in support of Armenian-American issues. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL), who incidentally backed Rubio’s unsuccessful candidacy to join Mitt Romney on the Republican presidential ticket in 2012, is also a top Republican contender in the next race for the White House. In 2006, Gov. Jeb Bush issued an official proclamation commemorating the Armenian Genocide.
Also of note are the known and unknown retirements of pro-Armenian Senators. Senior New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg announced his intention not to seek re-election in 2014, paving the way for Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D-NJ) to seek his seat. Representing one of the strongest Armenian-American communities, New Jersey’s senior Senator Lautenberg has cosponsored successive Armenian Genocide resolutions. Booker has not issued any official statements or proclamations on the Armenian Genocide as mayor, but he has attended Armenian community events. Also, Armenian Caucus Co-Founder and Co-Chair Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) previously expressed interest in the Senate seat years ago, but has not yet announced his intentions for the next cycle. Booker was in Palm Beach last month for a fundraiser for his Senate campaign. Also, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) announced that he would not seek re-election in 2014. Republicans are looking forward to Congressman Steve King (R-IA) jumping into this open seat contest, while Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) is the only major Democrat in the race. Rep. Steve King is a member of the Turkish Caucus whereas Rep. Bruce Braley is a member of the Armenian Caucus. Another Senate departure that seriously impacts Armenian-American issues is the retirement of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). Levin’s retirement was expected as he was on the short list of retirements to look out for as we approach the 2014 mid-term elections. He will be 80 years old had he chosen to run for re-election next year. Senator Levin has been a champion of Armenian issues for over thirty years and introduced one of the first Armenian Genocide resolutions in the Senate back in 1981. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) is also on that list, but his retirement is less likely. Durbin, the Senate Democrat’s number two, is a previous cosponsor of the Armenian Genocide resolution.
With the exception of House Speaker Boehner, a majority of the Republican and Democrat leadership in both the House and Senate, including leaders of the HFAC and SFRC on both sides of the aisle, all have strong, decades-long records in support of Armenian-American issues, particularly efforts to protect Christian Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh from Muslim Turkey and Azerbaijan’s blockade and aggressive policies, as well as genocide recognition efforts. Interestingly, despite the broad coalition of pro-Armenia congressional leadership, the one factor that has been instrumental in previous legislative efforts to affirm and reaffirm the U.S. record on the Armenian Genocide is a strong Speaker of the House. When the United States House of Representatives first acknowledged the Armenian Genocide in 1977, and again in 1984, the Speaker at the time was none other than Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill (D-MA), arguably one of the most powerful Speakers of the House in American history. Of course, his being from Massachusetts helped. But since then, the closest the Armenian Genocide resolution got to the House floor was in 2000, when it passed the Rules Committee under Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and was ultimately blocked by President Bill Clinton. Hastert was somewhat of a strong Speaker, but he was no Newt Gingrich or Tip O’Neill. In 2007 and 2010, Speaker Pelosi was unable to get the Armenian Genocide bill through her own Rules Committee. As the 113th Congress convened to elect their Speaker, some Republican members organized a behind-the-scenes revolt against Boehner, many preferring Rep. Eric Cantor. However unsuccessful this effort was, it does open wider the possibility for a new Republican Speaker should the GOP hold the House in 2014, especially if Republicans loose more seats. History suggests that only a strong, well-respected and powerful Speaker would be able to bring an Armenian Genocide resolution to the floor of the House for a vote before 2015. One possible scenario would be that a Speaker Ryan or a Speaker Cantor could very well play that role. After joining Mitt Romney on the Republican ticket in 2012, talk on Capitol Hill has it that Ryan is less interested in the White House, and instead is eyeing the Speaker’s gavel. In addition, it was Cantor, not Boehner, who recently spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in an effort to rebrand the GOP for the 2014 midterms. In another scenario, should Democrats take back the House in the 2014, it is unlikely that a Speaker Pelosi could or would bring an Armenian Genocide bill up for a vote, but a Speaker Hoyer potentially could.
[WATCH: Florida Armenians Editor Speaks to Voice of America’s Armenian Service About the 2012 U.S. Election (in Armenian)]
The 2014 mid-term elections will be an important factor in the makeup of Armenian-American and Turkish influence in Congress, and will set the chessboard for 2015. Congress, of which one chamber has already recognized the Armenian Genocide, has an opportunity to work with the White House to put American foreign policy on the right course when it comes to the Armenian Genocide and future human rights related policy. The outperformance of Turkish PACs to Armenian PACs in the last three cycles has turned the tables, as reflected in the Armenian and Turkish Caucus numbers. It remains to be seen what steps the Armenian-American community will take in the next 24 months. At the same time, the re-election of President Barack Obama offers a sliver of hope for Armenian-Americans, particularly in those that stuck with him (with their checkbooks and at the ballot box) last year. President Obama can issue an executive proclamation, order or decree reaffirming the vast U.S. record on the Armenian Genocide at any time prior to the expiration of his term in January 2017. Certainly, human rights and anti-genocide activists, within and beyond the Armenian-American community, hope the President will honor his 2008 campaign promise to refer to the events of 1915 as the Armenian Genocide before the 100th anniversary. With a strong, well-established and broad coalition of pro-Armenia officials in the leadership of both political parties in both chambers of the U.S. Congress (and hopefully a strong Speaker), President Obama no longer threatened by another election, Vice President Joe Biden’s well established record, and Secretary of State Kerry’s decades-long efforts on behalf of his Armenian-American constituents, there has never been a more opportune time for the Armenian-American community to have a positive impact on U.S. reaffirmation, and Turkey’s recognition, of the Armenian Genocide-potentially even a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result. After all, it is the modern government of Turkey’s recognition of its Ottoman predecessor’s crime that the Armenian Diaspora deems as the justice necessary to bring about true healing and reconciliation between the two peoples. No doubt President Obama, his cabinet, and U.S. Congressional leaders have an opportunity to play a crucial role in what could be one of the most monumental achievements of justice and conflict resolution in modern human history.
Taniel Koushakjian is an independent political commentator for Florida Armenians (www.flarmenians.com). He earned a B.A. in Political Science from Florida Atlantic University, and is currently enrolled at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @Taniel_Shant.