The U.S. Congress is returning from its month-long August recess to face an ambitious legislative agenda and midterm elections in November. Several major issues such as the Iraq war and the Israel-Hezbollah conflict will likely dominate the remaining months of this congressional session. One lawmaker who will play a key role in the process is Senator Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Repubican Senator Richard Lugar is one of Capitol Hill's most influential voices in foreign policy.
Whether he's talking about Iraq.... "The people of Iraq desperately need their government to deliver tangible benefits".
....or China... "Beijing must reassess its regional priorities."
.... his words have impact.
"The world has many dangers and many possibilities, and I have cherished the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee because it offers opportunities to learn more, not only for my own curiosity, to satisfy that, but likewise for other members and through television, a broad audience in our country," said the senator.
Lugar has been chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee since 2003. It is the second time he has chaired the panel. He also served from 1985 to 1987.
In a VOA interview he talks about the demands of the job, which he has to balance with his responsibilities as a member of the Agriculture Committee.
"I am constantly trying to stay in touch with all of the committee work of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Agriculture Committee. That includes meetings with other members, memos that they produce, staff-generated materials, and a long stream of visitors."
That long stream of visitors includes his constituents from Indiana and, on this day, actress Angelina Jolie, Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It also includes a large number of foreign dignitaries.
"I suspect the value of having these conversations is not only to indicate that our country takes seriously the thoughts of people of other countries and as a courteous gesture,” he says, “but to interrogate these visitors as to what is really occurring in their countries."
The senator deals with top administration officials -- including the president. But some lawmakers, including those in President Bush's Republican Party, have expressed frustration that Congress is not consulted more often about foreign policy. Asked about this, Lugar is characteristically diplomatic.
"I can understand that members of the administration feel they have to keep fairly close counsel. Perhaps they have not reached out on all occasions as widely and ideally as they should. On the other hand, we have a responsibility in the checks and balances to hold hearings, to raise questions, whether they are reaching out or not."
Richard Lugar began his public career as a member of the Indianapolis school board in the Midwestern U.S. state of Indiana from 1964 to 1967. It was during the civil rights struggle in the United States.
"It was a time of great turmoil in public education,” he recalls. “It was a time of great turmoil in the cities of America. I rapidly found how the civil rights revolution was coming upon the schools as well as the civil government of our city, and these were very, very controversial, and sometimes even dangerous times."
Lugar worked to promote voluntary public school desegregation. His efforts were noticed by Republican Party officials, who urged him to run for mayor.
Lugar served two terms as Indianapolis mayor and went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976. He is running for his sixth term this year, and he is unopposed.
Of all the achievements of his Senate career, he is most proud of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The 1991 bill was sponsored by Senator Lugar and then-Senator Sam Nunn. It provides funding to former Soviet states to dismantle their nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
"That was the beginning of what has led to the dismantling of well over 60 percent of the warheads literally taken off the missiles pointed at the United States, the destruction of well over 60 percent of all the missiles, of the silos in which the missiles are based, of all the ground work."
He keeps track of the effort with a wall chart in his Capitol Hill office. “Over at the left,” he shows us, “we have identified 13,300 warheads that the former Soviet Union had aimed at the United States of America, any one of which could have destroyed my hometown of Indianapolis. Now, as of last year, 1628 of those warheads have been deactivated, that is taken off of missiles.”
With an ambitious committee and Senate agenda expected in the coming months, the 74-year-old Lugar shows no sign of slowing down, or giving up his role as one of the Senate's most influential voices on foreign policy.