WASHINGTON — Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has landed a spot on the Senate Armed Services Committee, a high-profile perch on one of the chamber’s most powerful committees that will allow the former law professor to burnish her foreign policy credentials.
The posting, which Warren sought and will take effect when a new Congress convenes next year, adds a new set of issues to Warren’s portfolio and promises to fuel speculation about a possible 2020 bid for president. The liberal firebrand — who is best known for dressing down Wall Street CEOs and pushing for ways to bolster the economic health of the middle class — will now be getting elbows deep in debates about defense spending, Russian cyberattacks, and deployment of the nation’s military around the world.
Warren will be the first Massachusetts senator to serve on the panel since Scott Brown, the Republican she defeated in 2012. She will continue a long Massachusetts tradition: The late Senator Edward M. Kennedy spent many years on the panel, which oversees the military and plays a role in defense spending, and he used the position to protect military bases and defense industry jobs in the Commonwealth.
Not only is the committee key for Massachusetts’s interests, it is also important for those who are concerned about President-elect Donald Trump’s connections with Russia. The panel will also play “an important oversight role and advocacy role with respect to how things are conducted,” said Paul Kirk, a former Kennedy aide who served as his replacement in the Senate after his death in 2009, serving on the Armed Services panel.
“I think it’s a hugely important assignment for Senator Warren, and it’s good for the citizens of the Commonwealth to have her on that committee,” he said.
Warren’s appointment will contribute to an outsize New England presence on the panel. The committee’s top Democrat is Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and its roster include several lawmakers from the region. It was not immediately clear how Democrats’ committee assignments were being reshuffled to accommodate Warren on the panel. A Senate Democratic leadership aide said he could not comment.
“All three of my brothers served in the military, and I understand the sacrifices America’s service members make to defend our country — and the important work that our Defense Department does to keep Americans safe,” Warren said in a press release announcing her assignment. “As a member of the committee, I will focus on making sure Congress provides effective support and oversight of the armed forces, monitors threats to national security, and ensures the responsible use of military force around the globe.”
Warren’s move should encourage her liberal fan base who would like to see her run for president.
Warren, a former Harvard law professor, has no military experience and would need to fill that gap should she decide to seek the Democratic nomination for president in four years.
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia had a similar foreign policy hole in his resume eight years ago, which was part of the reason President Obama passed him over for vice president. To fix the problem, Kaine lobbied successfully for a slot on Armed Services.
Many in Washington had speculated that Warren, 67, was seeking a seat on the Judiciary Committee, another coveted assignment. It would have provided Warren a prominent stage to showcase her legal skills and talent for creating YouTube moments during the coming battle over replacing Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February, on the US Supreme Court.
As much as it will help broaden Warren’s international portfolio, the Armed Services assignment could be a very good platform for proving to constituents she is paying attention to the home front.
“We put out a million press releases touting one grant or another to various military bases and defense companies,” said Jim Manley, a former Kennedy staffer. “It paid off mostly in his efforts to protect the state and the defense industry.”
General Electric, which just moved its corporate headquarters to Boston, paid particularly close attention to the panel’s work, recalled Manley.
As chairman of one of the panel’s subcommittees, Kennedy in 2008 fought back against a Pentagon decision to scrap plans to build a $20 billion DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyer program, which involved lucrative contracts held by Waltham-based Raytheon and Bath Iron Works in Maine.
Within a month, Kennedy’s tactics of organizing colleagues and threatening to cut off other funding for projects the Pentagon wanted had the destroyer program back on track, along with Raytheon’s contracts.
“I’m proud that Massachusetts leads the nation in innovative defense work and scientific research that helps and protects our service members as they do their jobs,” Warren said. “I’ve visited bases and met with defense companies and research labs across the Commonwealth, and I’ve seen the critical role they play in strengthening our national security.”
Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, an advocacy group that heavily lobbies the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview he believes Warren’s appointment is a big opportunity for her personally and for the state’s economy at large.
“There’s an opportunity for Senator Warren to gain insight in technology and innovation in Massachusetts and apply those solutions in a meaningful way through defense contracts and in defense spending,” he said.
He called on Warren to follow Kennedy’s example of being a fierce advocate for his home state defense contractors, expertly wielding his influence to procure lucrative contracts for local economies, regardless of political differences, Anderson said.
Warren, an outspoken critic of the incoming administration, may also be forced to separate political differences from local advocacy.
“Times are changing, but hopefully elected officials who are represented in important committees will differentiate between policies battles that are political in nature and the important work of protecting the war fighter, regardless of who wins the policy battle,” Anderson said. “There’s a difference between selling and installing.”
Warren will keep her seat on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, a position she has used to further some of her signature economic policy and consumer protection causes. She most recently took on John Stumpf, who was then chief executive of Wells Fargo, in a blistering speech in which she accused him of having “gutless leadership.” He has since resigned.
She will also continue to serve on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions — which will be at the center of the fight over repealing President Obama’s health care law — as well as the Senate Special Committee on Aging. She is stepping down from the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.