WASHINGTON — The two powerful women sat across from each other in the ornate, gold-curtained congressional hearing room: U.S. Rep. Kay Granger was at the center of the dais and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the witness seat as the Fort Worth Republican grilled her on world affairs.
From Egypt and Iran to China and Japan, Granger has emerged as a power broker in Congress on foreign policy as she finishes her first year as chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Agencies.
Since the Republican Party regained control of the House in 2011, whenever Clinton and other heavyweights in Democratic President Barack Obama's administration face funding issues, it's Granger they go to as they try to win congressional backing.
That's why Clinton went before Granger earlier this month. The subcommittee sets funding for the State Department and foreign aid, a role that gives the former Fort Worth mayor major sway over the expenditure of over $53 billion for the next fiscal year.
Granger met Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - with whom she is on a first-name basis - as part of a select group of U.S. House members, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., during a private Capitol Hill luncheon to learn about the Iranian nuclear threat.
A few days earlier, Granger played a critical behind-the-scenes role in a diplomatic coup for the U.S. - the release of U.S. citizens involved with pro-democracy groups who had been forced to stay in Egypt.
The eight-term congresswoman is nonetheless self-effacing, one year after becoming a "cardinal," as the chairs of the 12 House Appropriations Committee subcommittees are known, about becoming a player on the world stage.
"It's really something that happened" over time, said Granger, 69, in an interview. "I always set out to be on defense," on the Appropriations Committee because of the military manufacturers in Tarrant County, including Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. and Bell Helicopter Textron.
"I never saw it taking me into this international role," she said. Since joining the subcommittee in 2009, Granger has been to 17 countries, making multiple visits to places including Israel, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates.
In addition to being chair of her subcommittee, Granger serves on the panel's defense subcommittee, as well as one on the Labor Dept. and other domestic agencies.
She has certainly proven to be comfortable in the role of foreign funding gatekeeper.
She spoke easily at the hearing with the formidable Clinton, a former first lady and former U.S. senator, who explained her agency's budget and the reasons for U.S. policy in hotspots around the world, announcing a deal with North Korea to suspend nuclear testing in exchange for food.
Granger questioned Clinton about the U.S. citizens from non-profit pro-democracy groups being forced to stay in Egypt, whom the secretary hinted would soon be released. International Republican Institute President Lorne Craner said Granger, as well as Clinton, should get credit for that.
"She (Granger) has built relationships over the years and as good a friend as she is of Egypt, she was able to get across to them that this was making it very difficult, that any money for Egypt was under threat," said Craner, who had five employees released, including Sam LaHood, the son of the U.S. Transportation secretary. "She played a very important role here."
Granger's tenacity was on display for the more than the two-hour exchange between the lawmakers and the secretary of state. It was Granger who controlled the board - and the gavel - showing, along with Clinton, a deep knowledge and familiarity with the issues. But it was Clinton who deferred to Granger, the keeper of the purse.
It's a long way from East Fort Worth, where Granger, a former teacher and insurance business owner, got her political start.
Granger, Fort Worth mayor from 1991 to 1995, always had an interest in international relations, and her new job gives her all she could hope for.
Over the past year, Granger has had personal contact with many world figures, from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to rock star Bono, who has made humanitarian aid to Africa a personal crusade. In January, Granger and other lawmakers joined Bono in Ghana for the opening of a school that his One Campaign had promoted.
Granger arranged for Bono to meet lawmakers last June on Capitol Hill. The U2 frontman,
who referred to the lawmaker as "Kay," told the Star-Telegram, "She's a very elegant woman" who dishes a lot of "tough love."
"We have to prove to her that these programs are saving lives," Bono said.
Granger said she challenges advocates of aid, as well as herself, to answer basic questions about the justification for foreign spending: "What do we get for it? Is it in our national security interests? What is a measure of success?"
"We have put enormous restrictions on foreign assistance, program by program," she said.
At the Clinton hearing this month, Granger said: "Our constituents demand that our foreign aid is aligned with our national security interests and American values. For that reason, the fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill contained conditions on funding to many countries so that we would have time to see how events on the ground unfold before funds are disbursed."
That common-sense approach to the U.S. role on the international stage has won Granger a following - especially in the Middle East where she has made many trips and has extensive contacts.
"It is a pleasure working with my friend Kay Granger because she understands the importance of diplomacy and development to our national security," said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. "I think it is not a coincidence that the only committee in Congress led by two women is among the most productive and collegial."
Lowey was chairwoman when the Democrats were in power and Granger was the ranking Republican who accompanied the New Yorker in 2009 as part of a Congressional delegation trip to Israel and Egypt, and a Latin American trip to Peru, Mexico and Colombia.
American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norm Ornstein said that Granger is "an internationalist" and that her position as an appropriations leader is "significant."
"She doesn't use it on her own for ideological crusades," he said. "She's serious about policy making."
Pete Geren, a former U.S. Army secretary under President George W. Bush and a former Democratic congressman who held Granger's 12th district seat, (and who succeeded former Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright,) before retiring in 1996, said that being an Appropriations "cardinal" means the congresswoman is a major player beyond Capitol Hill.
"She is a significant international player," said Geren, "the most senior person in the House dealing with the foreign aid budget."
"I think she's got great leadership skills for that kind of position," he said.
"The members of her subcommittee are international figures and she's the chair. World leaders look to that subcommittee. It makes her an influential figure internationally. I don't think people in the U.S. appreciate the reach of that committee," said Geren, who now heads Fort Worth's Sid W. Richardson Foundation.
Former Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief sees Granger's approach to domestic issues working to her advantage internationally.
"The voice of common sense and sound reasoning has always been a part of her DNA," said Moncrief. "Her congressional responsibilities have carried her from one end of the planet to another; she's extremely well-traveled and knowledgeable about cultures and countries."
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