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New Democratic House Majority Could Affect America's Global Engagement

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, steps away from the podium as House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., makes
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, steps away from the podium as House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., makes

A new Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives will be eager to assert itself on foreign affairs and provide a check on the Trump administration when the new Congress convenes in January.

From diplomatic initiatives to refugee quotas to regional concerns spanning the globe, House Democrats have signaled they will work to hold the administration to account on its policies and potentially wield the power of the purse in areas of disagreement.

Republicans, who played a similar role for much of the previous Obama administration, have warned of a potential uptick in partisan discord on foreign policy, a realm that in past eras, such as the Cold War, often saw broad bipartisan consensus.

Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, who is expected to become the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Reuters the panel will provide thorough oversight of the administration's dealings abroad, including with Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

"If the Saudis want our [U.S.] support, then they have to address some of the things that concern us," Engel said.

FILE - Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel.
FILE - Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel.

Tuesday's midterm elections boosted Republicans' Senate majority, but Democrats serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee acknowledged the importance of controlling at least one chamber of Congress.

"We [members of Congress] are the appropriators," Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said ahead of the vote. "So when the White House sends a budget up every year and they propose dramatically reduced funding for USAID [foreign assistance] or diplomacy, we will be able to continue to robustly fund those priorities."

Power of majority

Ahead of the election, Republicans didn't dispute that a Democratic majority in either chamber would flex its muscles.

"The primary role of Congress is to fund the government, including the Department of Defense, and Democrats could have a direct impact," the Senate's No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, told VOA.

FILE - Senate Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, talks with reporters on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 in Washington.
FILE - Senate Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, talks with reporters on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 in Washington.

"The Democrats could do a great deal with power in Congress," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The president, by the Constitution, is granted diplomatic power. He's also the commander-in-chief of the military, but only Congress can declare war. And also on many other issues, such as applying sanctions, Congress passes the laws."

"You don't need to worry about a dull period," said national security expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I don't know that control [of Congress] is the issue. I think it might well be the partisanship of both houses and how hard it may be to agree on anything, move things forward, and avoid turning every foreign policy issue into a partisan issue."

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, California Rep. Adam Schiff, consistently has demanded a more thorough accounting of Russian election meddling, as well as ties between Trump's inner circle and Moscow, often chafing with the panel's current chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, who often has defended the president.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California.

As chairman, Schiff will have a free hand to renew and invigorate probes and to subpoena witnesses. He also would have a more prominent platform from which to critique the White House.

Last week, Schiff pointed a finger at Trump after Nigerian troops opened fire on protesters, suggesting the president's pronouncements and actions at home and abroad have made authoritarian responses more likely on the world stage.

"This [incident in Nigeria] is what happens when you abdicate leadership of the free world. Not to mention basic decency," Schiff tweeted.

Meanwhile, the likely incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, has been a leading critic of the president's decision to send troops to the U.S. border with Mexico ahead of the expected arrival of a caravan of Central American migrants.

"The United States can maintain a secure border and the rule of law while still upholding our country's values to protect those fleeing persecution and violence. The use of military personnel, however, will not help us meet this challenge and only exacerbates the potential to unnecessarily escalate the situation," Smith and more than 100 other House Democrats wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week.

Oversight role

Analysts said, beginning in January, House Democrats will exercise broad power to scrutinize and draw attention to the administration's decisions and initiatives, including a potential nuclear deal with North Korea.

"A lot of Democrats are critical of President Trump on North Korea policy," O'Hanlon said. "Certainly many Democrats think he's been too friendly to Kim Jong Un or too unpredictable in his bluster and his tweets."

"Obviously the Democrats are going to pick at every possible weakness," Cordesman said. "If the president is successful in dismantling the North Korean nuclear program, you might have some very loud Republican voices and some very silent Democratic ones. It's going to depend on how people perceive the opportunity."

For their part, Republicans said lawmakers of both parties should work cooperatively with the administration on foreign affairs.

"There's a lot going on in the world, so we need to try to be as unified as we can in working with the administration, rather than just joining the resistance," Cornyn said. "There's a lot of stake. I have not been encouraged by what we've seen of late. They [Democrats] seem more of the sand-in-the-gears mindset. This is a different political environment than any I've encountered during my adult life."

Another Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, scoffed when asked about Democrats asserting themselves on global affairs.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

"I don't know what their foreign policy is," Graham said. "I know what Trump's is. But what is the Democratic view of foreign policy? I don't think they have one. They don't like Trump, but what are they for? Should we stay in Syria? Should we stay in Afghanistan? What should we do with Iran? These are things they never talk about."

Military engagements

Cordesman said the next Congress will confront multiple questions about ongoing U.S. military engagements at a time when America's fiscal situation is worsening.

"On defense policy, in terms of basic spending levels, things are now relatively non-partisan," Cordesman said. "If it came to a major new commitment in Afghanistan, any dramatic action in Iraq or Syria, or humanitarian aid, a lot would be debated there. Government spending and money may be a much more sensitive issue. Republicans may favor defense spending, Democrats may have more support for foreign aid. But exactly what's going to happen is pretty hard to tell."

"My expectation is that in most foreign policy issues we would not see a Democratic House, even a Democratic Senate, making huge changes in U.S. foreign policy because, in some ways, they lack the means," O'Hanlon said.

"But even more importantly, as much as they complain about Mr. Trump's style and worry about his overall steadiness, it's not clear how many of his policies they fundamentally disagree with in a way that would create a consensus they could write into law and change the nation's basic foreign policy course," he said.