By DONNA CASSATA
WASHINGTON (AP) - 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 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 and Royce will preside on Wednesday as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies about the deadly Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. The back-to-back hearings likely will be her last appearance on Capitol Hill before she steps down.
Menendez, then a House member, and Royce had been heading a congressional delegation to Angola that was 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 Clinton.
Menendez would be the first Latino to head the Foreign Relations Committee. He will preside at two high-profile hearings this week, Wednesday with Clinton 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.