Engel, McCaul Forge Rare Bipartisan Bond

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Most top Republicans and Democrats squared off this week in fierce warfare over the Mueller report and its findings clearing President Trump of criminal collusion with Russia, but there was one island of calm in the sea of partisan enmity.

Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Mike McCaul, the panel’s ranking Republican, on Monday shared the stage at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington and publicly lauded each other’s personal integrity and shared commitment to protecting the U.S.-Israel alliance.

The easy rapport between the two lawmakers -- particularly the absence of biting words or outward signs of vitriol -- was almost jarring in an era of Twitter storms and continuous partisan recriminations.

“First of all, I think when it comes to foreign affairs, I think it’s very important that partisan politics should stop at the water’s edge – I think it’s very important that other nations see us working together – and we’ve had that tradition on the Foreign Affairs Committee,” Engel told the crowd.

McCaul, the former chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, was wholeheartedly on board.

“Eliot and I are very protective of the integrity of the committee — it should not be politicized. It should not be partisan,” he said. “In fact, when we travel overseas, we travel not as Republicans or Democrats but as Americans representing the United States of America, and that’s what is so great about it.”

The genial conversation between New Yorker Engel and Texan McCaul came the same week many Republicans were calling for several prominent Democratic lawmakers, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, to resign over their role in fueling the Trump-Russian collusion narrative.

Engel was notably absent from that list even though, as a chairman of the top foreign policy panel, he has often joined his Democratic colleagues in questioning President Trump’s ties to Russia and those of his close associates.

In the last month, Engel, along with five other Democratic chairmen, signed a letter to administration officials pressing for documents and interviews related to Trump’s communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Late last week, he also signed onto a Democratic missive demanding that the Justice Department release the full Mueller report and underlying evidence to the relevant congressional committees.

Still, unlike Schiff, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings, and other Democratic anti-Trump bulldogs, Engel hasn’t leveraged his perch on the Foreign Affairs Committee into a leading Russia-collusion antagonist on the cable news circuit, alienating Republicans in the process.  

He also hasn’t let party loyalties hinder his willingness to work with McCaul and other Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans on their many areas of broad agreement.

For the last six years, Engel and former Rep. Ed Royce, the California Republican who previously chaired the panel, enjoyed a similar camaraderie. The same type of bipartisan comity has traditionally extended across the Capitol to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but during the Trump administration that has become increasingly rare.

In the last two years, the cross-party collaboration actually took a perverse turn in the Senate: The former Republican chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, a top Trump GOP adversary, and the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, worked together to stymie the confirmation of dozens of the president’s State Department nominations.

Republican Sen. James Risch, who is generally viewed as more closely aligned with Trump, now chairs the panel and is expected to push back against efforts by Menendez to continue blocking the president’s nominees.

Engel and McCaul are hardly natural political allies. They share nearly opposite views when it comes to climate change, abortion, gun control and Obamacare.  But it doesn’t hurt that Engel, who is Jewish, and McCaul are both stalwart defenders of Israel even though Engel’s Democratic caucus is in the middle of a divisive public feud over support for that Mideast ally.

In recent weeks, Engel, a 30-year House veteran and one of the most senior members of his party’s caucus, has been making headlines sparring with freshmen Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, both of whom have been accused of making anti-Semitic comments. Both also support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel.

When Omar accused U.S. supporters of Israel of dual loyalties by pushing for “allegiance to a foreign country,” Engel led the bipartisan condemnation. He called the comment a “vile anti-Semitic slur” and demanded an apology. Omar previously had accused Israel of “hypnotizing” the world and claimed in her “it’s all about the Benjamins, baby” tweet that lawmakers support Israel in exchange for campaign funds.

Omar eventually apologized for both statements but has continued to take swipes at other Democratic leaders. On Tuesday, she pointedly criticized Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s condemnation of the BDS movement.

After Omar’s first comments sparked a bipartisan backlash, Engel pushed for passage of a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism, but Democratic leaders pivoted and included language condemning Islamophobia and white supremacy, which Republicans derided as an effort to water it down.

During their joint AIPAC appearance, both Engel and McCaul pledged do everything in their power to fortify the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

“I’m very proud of my Jewish heritage, and I’m very proud of the fact that the United States and Israel have remained good friends,” Engel said while sharing the stage with McCaul. A few minutes later he pledged to make sure “that strong bond is never broken.”

They two also readily expressed their concerns about the divisions in the Democratic caucus and what they viewed as anti-Semitic efforts to undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“Yes, we have some people who say things they should not say, and I’m very happy to voice my objection to it publicly,” Engel said.

“I am deeply disturbed by some in Congress who are threatening this alliance. I don’t think I’ve seen this in the 15 years I’ve been in Congress, and I don’t have any tolerance for that,” McCaul said.

Both lawmakers also expressed deep concern about Trump’s decision, now reversed, to significantly draw down troops in Syria, where Iranian Shia militias have made inroads and ISIS could reconstitute without U.S. troops to help stabilize the area.

The two leaders, along with Risch and Menendez, are circulating a letter to Trump highlighting the mounting threats to Israel’s northern border and supporting U.S. action to stand by Israel.

Last month, the pair also teamed up on a letter demanding answers from the administration on how U.S. military equipment ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in Yemen. The letter complained about unauthorized transfers of U.S. equipment and weapons by the Saudi and UAE governments. McCaul was one of just three Republicans to sign the letter.

In early January, soon after Engel took over as chairman and the same day the Trump administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the true president of Venezuela, Engel and McCaul wrote a joint letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to prioritize the safety of U.S. diplomats in Caracas and requesting an “immediate” briefing on the unfolding events there.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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