Ambitious Texas Republican floats own name to chair powerful Foreign Affairs panel

House Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 26, 2015.
House Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 26, 2015. AP

Rep. Mike McCaul says he's "attracted" to the idea of leading the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, a position that could create more debate with the White House on Mexico and Latin American policy.

The Texas Republican, who will soon reach his term limit as the House Homeland Security committee chairman, shared his interest during a conference in New York at the Council on Foreign Relations emphasizing that the biggest threat he sees for the United States is no longer terrorism, but a nuclear action from a foreign adversary.

“There’s so many hotspots right now,” McCaul said. “And one thing that attracts me about potentially chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee is we’re moving from this ISIS threat to nation-state foreign adversary empires: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, to name a few.”

If McCaul wins the gavel to the influential committee, he's expected to pay closer attention to Mexico and Latin America, which could generate greater push back of White House policies that have alienated important regional allies, such as Mexico.

McCaul is also chairman of the U.S.-Mexico Interparliamentary Group, which works with Mexican lawmakers on maintaining and strengthening the partnership between the two nations. And he'd likely be teaming up on the committee with Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, who brings his own Latin American expertise as a former chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.

"Their leadership on foreign policy is critical these days, as the White House's approach to the region has hurt the U.S. image and complicated relations with even close allies," said Benjamin Gedan, who served as South America director on the National Security Council in the Obama administration.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked Mexico. Last month, Mexico’s Senate urged its government to end cooperation with the United States on migration and security after Trump asked that the National Guard be deployed to the border.

McCaul has warned against scrapping NAFTA, the trade pact with Mexico and Canada. He has led congressional delegations to Mexico and spoken out about the importance of maintaining strong ties with the key trade and security partner.

McCaul said the challenges in the Western Hemisphere are vast and the United States must pay "acute attention." Otherwise, he said, the region's challenges could "metastasize further” into greater threats to freedom.

"In Venezuela, there is a refugee crisis on par with that occurring in Syria," McCaul said in a statement to McClatchy. "In Mexico, the murder rate is at the highest point ever recorded, and the Mexican people are about to elect a president who will stifle economic growth and opportunity for the Mexican people. Meanwhile, China continues to burden the region with unsustainable debt obligations in order to buy influence and expand its global ambitions."

In New York, McCaul also raised concerns about China’s growing influence in Latin America among a list of foreign policies that he sees have taken center stage as ISIS has been weakened.

“There’s still a threat, but the bigger threat I see moving forward now are these foreign adversary nations—that being Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea,” McCaul said. “I think those states pose far greater threats to national security than these one-, two-man operations that ISIS is sort of denigrated to.”

The leadership post is available because current committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., announced he would not seek re-election in November. The chairmanship would be vacant in January.

McCaul, 56, has not been shy about his political ambitions. McCaul considered running to replace John Boehner as House speaker in 2015. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry pitched McCaul as a potential primary challenger to Sen. Ted Cruz in fall of 2016. In September, his name was reported as a leading candidate to run the Department of Homeland Security.

McCaul, in fact, has retained a media firm to prepare for the next role.

Texas-based Steinhauser Strategies boasted in November that it was working to build the congressman’s “national profile” and “drive his messages on national security and border security nationwide.”

But McCaul faces some potential competition from Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who is also exploring a bid to be the top Republican on the committee and has received some support from members of House Republican Steering Committee.

McCaul, elected in 2005, is well-respected among the Texas delegation. Texas currently accounts for 25 of 248 House Republicans – more than any other state’s share of the GOP conference.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch