Washington – Chris Murphy followed a twisting road to Kiev.
The early political career of Connecticut’s junior senator focused on education and health care. When he challenged a 12-term GOP incumbent to win a House seat in 2006, the hot issue was the Iraq War; but Murphy took on Rep. Nancy Johnson over the prescription drug benefit, which Johnson had helped design. He beat her handily.
Last year, after defeating Republican Linda McMahon to win his Senate seat, Murphy was propelled to the front lines of the battle over gun control by the mass shooting in Newtown. When Congress deadlocked on that issue, he was pushed into the limelight in an unexpected area, especially for someone so new to the Senate — foreign affairs. Democratic leaders gave Murphy a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the chairmanship of a subcommittee in charge of European affairs.
Last year, Murphy stood up to President Obama on Syria, discussed National Security Agency spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel with German officials and brought the promise of U.S. support to thousands of cheering Ukrainian protesters, alongside a big player in the world of diplomacy and war — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Murphy himself said his high-profile role in foreign affairs was largely accidental. He said his first bid when he was sworn into the Senate a year ago was for the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee so he could continue work on health care and education he began as a member of Connecticut’s legislature and continued in the U.S. House of Representatives
Although he won a seat on the HELP committee, he said his first year on the panel was consumed by managing the implementation of the health care law instead of considering new reforms. Education issues have also taken a back seat.
“[The Foreign Relations] committee was among my second choices,” Murphy admitted in an interview. “But you have to work with the cards you have been dealt.”
The Blumenthal factor
Involvement in international affairs also helps Murphy distinguish himself from Connecticut’s other senator, the inexhaustible Richard Blumenthal, who is serving his third year in the Senate but is Connecticut’s senior senator.
Blumenthal has used his seats on the Judiciary and Armed Services committees to put his stamp on a number of issues — from the need to curb NSA domestic spying to changing the way rapes are prosecuted in the military.
Blumenthal’s high-profile, activist role in the Senate did not extend to foreign affairs, which gives Murphy some political turf to claim.
While Murphy has conceded that foreign affairs wasn’t his first love, Blumenthal said Murphy “has a deep interest in international affairs, particularly in seeking peace and maintaining our nation’s security.
“He’s very intelligent and able, and he’ll use his position on the foreign relations committee to pick issues that will make a mark for himself and Connecticut,” Blumenthal said.
Murphy had been a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, although he says he wasn’t very active on the panel. But he used that platform to become a vocal critic of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I thought America had really screwed up its place in the world,” Murphy said.
Bad foreign policy, including the U.S. military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, “puts the nation at risk,” he said.
“We’re bullying our enemies and eavesdropping on our friends.”
Concerns about what he thinks is the wrongheadedness of some U.S. moves — including “drones that kill civilians” — drew him in, Murphy said, as well as the effects of U.S. foreign policy on trade.
“Our economy is going to survive because of exports,” Murphy said.
Ron Schurin, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, said Murphy is a member of a growing group of freshmen who are breaking with Senate traditions.
“In the old days, freshmen did not speak until their second year,” Schurin said. “If they were put on a major committee, they sat at the end of the table and didn’t get much noticed.”
But a number of ambitious, new members of the Senate want to make their mark as soon as possible. President Obama, who once held Murphy’s job as chairman of the European panel on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was elected to the White House in his third year in the Senate.
And freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, rocked the nation, and became the tea party’s choice presidential candidate, by leading the charge to shut down the government over a fight over the Affordable Care Act.
Meanwhile, Murphy’s work on foreign affairs issues, especially his quick and forceful opposition to military intervention in Syria, is playing well with those who voted for him, Schurin said. “Chris Murphy is doing what many people would find [to be] reflective of his constituents.”
Murphy said his stand on Syria helped other Democrats defy the president. He said several senators approached him on the Senate floor to ask about Syria.
When congressional support for his plan to invade Syria eroded, Obama was forced to seize a Russian diplomatic initiative to try to solve the Syrian problem.
“I feel like I’m making a difference on the committee,” Murphy said.
Yet he has also alienated some of his colleagues – and made clear he thinks the United States should have a leading role around the globe.
As a guest speaker on a panel about climate change at the Center for International Policy in May, Murphy said, “you now have the Foreign Relations Committee being a place where isolationists want to be rather than internationalists.”
“This used to be the home of [moderate Indiana Republican Sen.] Dick Lugar; it is now the home of Rand Paul,” he said, referring to the conservative Kentucky senator. Lugar, two-term chairman of Foreign Relations, was nominated, with Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the dismantling of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Perhaps seeking bipartisan support for his mission, McCain chose Murphy to accompany him in December in a quick trip to Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, where there have been large public protests against the government’s decision to rebuff a European Union trade pact in favor of Russia.
Brian Rogers, McCain’s communications director, said, “Senator McCain knows Senator Murphy and his interest in Ukraine from their time serving together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That’s why Senator McCain invited him.”
Alexander Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers University, said Murphy “a bit of a youngster” and McCain, “a foreign policy heavy hitter,” sent a clear message of U.S. support for the protesters who gathered every day in a central square in Kiev and were victims of a brutal crackdown.
Murphy said his speech there, through a hastily arranged interpreter, was “short, but well received.”
He said he told the protesters that the U.S. Senate is with them, and that as the youngest senator, he was especially proud the young Ukrainians had maintained a peaceful protest despite the crackdown.
“It’s nice to have U.S. senators pat them on the back,” Motyl said. “But that doesn’t stop the regime’s thugs from cracking them on the head.”
Robert Orttung, assistant director at George Washington’s Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, was more upbeat about the worth of the senators’ whirlwind weekend trip to the Ukraine.
“It shows that the United States and its elected representatives are concerned about what is going on there,” he said.
On the day of a violent crackdown in Maidan, Kiev’s central plaza, Murphy introduced a resolution in the Senate aimed at pressuring the Ukrainian government to sign the EU trade agreement and condemning violence and intimidation against protesters.
Murphy’s resolution also says that in the case of further crackdowns on protesters, the Obama administration and Congress “should consider whether to apply targeted sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, against individuals responsible for ordering or carrying out the violence.”
Motyl said the nonbinding resolution may have a chance of Senate approval if protests continue in the Ukraine and there are more crackdowns.
“It would be just a signal, but a signal goes a long way,” Motyl said.
Murphy, who was quick to join the Senate’s Polish Caucus in deference to his background, has also forged relationships with members of the European Parliament and traveled to Berlin and Brussels to try to mend fences because of the uproar over the NSA’s eavesdropping on Merkel.
Well trod territory
Unwittingly or not, Murphy appears to be following the lead of many former Connecticut senators who made their mark in foreign policy, including Sens. Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd, a chief critic of U.S. involvement in the Central American conflicts of the late 1970s and 1980s.
Another former senator, and Chris Dodd’s father, Thomas Dodd, was a leading Cold War warrior. The list of former Connecticut senators with an interest in international issues includes Prescott Bush, father of George H.W. Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush. Prescott Bush represented Connecticut in the Senate in the 1950s through 1962, and helped create the Peace Corps.
Of his working relationship with Blumenthal, Murphy said, “We are very strategic. There are some issues where we work hand in glove and there are others where we divvy up things.”
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