WASHINGTON — A harrowing nighttime flight over the African jungle and a wild search for a rebel leader helped forge a relationship between Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and Republican Rep. Ed Royce, two men standing at the forefront of Congress' changing guard on foreign policy.
It was May 1997 and the lawmakers boarded a small plane to the African bush to plead with Jonas Savimbi, leader of the Angolan UNITA party, about ordering his forces to put down their arms and ending the country's civil war. Nearly 16 years later, Menendez and Royce are together again, collaborating as the new chairmen, respectively, of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees.
They will lead a new group of foreign policy figures certain to challenge President Barack Obama on a growing list of issues: the civil war in Syria, the tenuous U.S. relationship with Pakistan, al-Qaida-linked groups in Africa and the threat from Iran's nuclear development program.
Menendez, then a House member, and Royce had been heading a congressional delegation to Angola, trying to persuade Savimbi to take part in elections and join the government. The effort failed, and they soon discovered that Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos had a unique way of showing his displeasure with the congressional mission.
"Dos Santos gave the order to close down the landing lights at the airport and you can't see anything over that jungle in the dead of night, including the air strip," Royce recalled recently. "We kept flying around and he (the pilot) could not find anywhere to land. Luckily for us, it turned out that night that Mobutu Sese Seko (the Congo leader) had been overthrown and there was a plane that came into that airport in Angola and when they turned the lights on to that plane, we came in right behind the plane."
Menendez and others on the trip remember shots being fired at some point. "It was definitely an experience," Menendez said.
The two House members who headed the Africa subcommittee felt an imperative to act. The decades-long, Cold War-era conflict pitted dos Santos, whose Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola was backed by the former Soviet Union, against Savimbi, who had the support of South Africa and the United States.
The fighting would leave a half million people dead and displace more than 4 million. Savimbi died in 2002 in a battle with government forces. Dos Santos has ruled Angola since 1979.
The less dangerous assignment for Menendez and Royce is overseeing significantly altered committees. Not only are the chairmen new, but the ranking members will be different — two-term Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker will be the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and New York Rep. Eliot Engel, elected in 1988, will be the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Gone are such stalwarts as six-term Republican Sen. Dick Lugar and 15-term Democratic Rep. Howard Berman. Joining the committees are rambunctious House freshmen and longtime senators willing to take on a second-term president. Republican Rep. Steve Stockman, who has threatened impeachment of Obama over new rules on guns, joins the House panel, while Sen. John McCain, the president's GOP rival in 2008, and tea party Sen. Rand Paul fill out the Senate committee.
Menendez and Royce, who were both elected to Congress in 1992, offer a study in contrasts and similarities.
Menendez, 59, is the son of Cuban immigrants and a hard-charging lawmaker from Union City, N.J., who famously testified about corruption while wearing a bullet-proof vest. He is poised to replace the current chairman, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., tapped by Obama to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Menendez would be the first Latino to head the Foreign Relations Committee. He will preside Wednesday when Clinton testifies about the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, and again on Thursday at Kerry's confirmation hearing.
Royce, 61, is a Californian who got his political start in the youth movement for Ronald Reagan. Democrats and Republicans recall his efforts to ensure the extradition of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer convicted in the United States on terrorism charges last year and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Royce has assumed the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, replacing Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who had to step down due to Republican term limits on committee chairmen.
"He's very thoughtful, very intelligent. He's serious, he cares about the issues. I've only good things to say," Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, said of Royce.
Menendez, now starting his second full Senate term, has been willing to challenge Republican and Democratic administrations.
He voted against the Iraq war in 2002, tangled with fellow Democrats on Cuba and pushed the Obama administration on sanctions on Iran. In just over a year, Congress has approved three rounds of penalties on Tehran's banking, energy and shipping industries to thwart its nuclear ambitions, with Menendez joining forces with Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois.
He suggested it might be time to pause and make sure the penalties are working — a possibility the administration probably would welcome.
"I don't know that there will be any new sanctions," Menendez said in a recent interview. "I think that the enforcement of existing sanctions and the new set of sanctions that don't go into effect yet and how we enforce those and how we pursue them ... will be very important in our success, hopeful success, to have Iran not achieve nuclear power."
Royce gives Menendez high marks for his work on sanctions — "cutting edge of really debilitating sanctions," the Republican says — and is eager to join forces on another round.
"I'd like to target the entire Iranian energy sector," Royce said. "I'd like to make it even harder for foreign companies to sell commercial goods to Iran. I'd like to freeze the regime's remaining foreign currency reserves."
Royce is optimistic about working with Menendez despite the political divide and the decades since the two committees produced major authorization legislation.
Royce said that during his travels with Menendez, the senator shared his strong opinion of totalitarian regimes.
"He has firsthand experience in his own family with that in terms of what happened to his uncle, a labor leader in Cuba who was executed there," the congressman said.
Menendez is reluctant to discuss his family, but he elaborates on his worldview and his approach to foreign policy.
"Dictatorship and totalitarianism regardless of where it exists in the world is utterly anti-democratic, it oppresses the people," he said, adding that promotion of democracy is critical.
The New Jersey senator has won praise from the families of those killed when U.S.-bound Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and for his diligence in challenging Moammar Gadhafi and any U.S. efforts to reach out to the late Libyan leader.
"He didn't let us down," said Brian Flynn, whose brother John was killed. "There's a certain amount of integrity and loyalty, and you saw that."