As an incoming freshman lawmaker, Senator-elect Bob Casey never expected to land a spot on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. But the Democrat from Scranton noted that the surprise appointment will afford him a unique opportunity to be part of the debate on forging a new Iraq strategy.
The outgoing State Treasurer added that as a committee member, he'll help ensure that America's Mideast policy continues to emphasize the historic alliance between America and Israel.
"Freshman rarely get this. I think Jim Webb (D-Va.) and I are the only two freshman on the committee. I assumed wrongly that it would take a couple of two-year cycles," said Casey, who was expected to be sworn in on Jan 4.
Casey defeated two-term Republican incumbent Rick Santorum by more than 700,000 votes, a larger margin than predicted.
"You are always relieved after a campaign, no matter what the result is," he added. "This was obviously a great win."
He noted that his family will remain in northeastern Pennsylvania, and he will commute to and from Washington. Casey bemoaned the lack of affordable housing in the nation's capital, and said that so far, he's had trouble finding an apartment.
Scrutinize the Findings
The socially conservative Democrat said that as soon as the 110th Congress gets under way, the Foreign Relations Committee will probably commence hearings on Iraq, seeking to find a way to stabilize the country and bring U.S. troops home.
Part of those hearings will examine the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, a document that troubled many in the pro-Israel community for its suggestions to engage in talks with Iran and Syria -- recommendations that appear to have been rejected by the president -- and for its linkage of Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The committee will seek the testimony of many of the experts who advised the study group, some of whom have subsequently criticized how their determinations were utilized in the final report, said Casey.
"Some of those recommendations that pertain to Syria and Iran, and the State of Israel ... bare scrutiny and cross-examination. It's going to take an awful lot to convince me that those recommendations are sound, but I'm going to keep an open mind."
Then, he added: "Administration officials should be subjected to withering cross-examination, which hasn't happened since the start of this war in Iraq."
While the administration has been unwilling to open up talks with Syria regarding the situation in Iraq, several senators have recently met with Syrian leadership, including Democratic Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), as well as Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). The administration has rebuked lawmakers for meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, arguing that the Arab nation is actively supporting terrorist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"United States senators are not appointees of the president or the secretary of state," said Casey. "They have every right to make that determination as to where they travel, and what to bring to bear on important state and international issues. Senators in both parties take those responsibilities very seriously."
Casey's other assignments include the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee; the Joint Economic Committee; and the Special Committee on Aging.
"Long-term care policy is a real test for our state and a real test for our country -- it's a moral obligation," he said, adding that part of the committee's work will involve analyzing basic labor issues, such as whether there are enough nurses' aides and certified nursing assistants.
"Pennsylvania is going to have to deal with a larger challenge. I think 85 and up is our fastest growing age segment."