CAPITOL HILL - While domestic concerns dominate much of the political debate ahead of next month’s U.S. midterm elections, Democratic lawmakers say they are eager to assert themselves on foreign affairs and, when necessary, provide a check on the Trump administration if they win control of at least one chamber of Congress in November.
From trade to refugee quotas to regional concerns spanning the globe, a newly empowered Democratic majority would work energetically 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, are warning 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.
“The results of the election can create an opportunity to press issues in a way that, right now, can’t be done with Republican control of both the House and the Senate,” Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told VOA.
“For example, our role in the world on refugees -- this administration has dramatically cut back on refugees,” Menendez added. “And standing up for human rights and democracy -- it doesn't seem to be a significant priority, as it has been in other administrations, with the Trump administration.”
“We [members of Congress] are the appropriators,” Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said. “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 the majority
Republicans don’t dispute that a new Democratic majority in either house of Congress 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, said.
“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 both houses [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.”
Current polling suggests that Democrats are more likely to win a majority in the House of Representatives than the Senate.
Recent months provide examples of House bipartisanship on international matters as well as partisan divergence.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican, and the panel’s top Democrat, Eliot Engel of New York, recently wrote a joint letter to President Donald Trump demanding “swift action” regarding the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Last month, however, Democrats took center stage in opposing the administration’s plan to provide $20 million to help Mexico deport Central American migrants passing through the country to reach the United States. In a statement, Engel labeled the plan “senseless” and an attempt “to use the State Department to force his [Trump’s] deportation crusade on other countries.”
A majority in either chamber of Congress would give Democrats broad power to scrutinize and draw attention to the administration’s decisions and initiatives on matters large and small.
“There are things I’d like to see done at the [Foreign Relations] committee that the Republican majority doesn't have an interest in,” Menendez said. “For example, I get concerned about the allegations of political firings at the State Department. That is something I would press if we had a Democratic majority. I have a more robust view of oversight – we really don’t know, for the most part, what’s been happening in our engagement 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.”
O’Hanlon noted that Trump is constitutionally empowered to try to forge a nuclear treaty with North Korea, just as his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, pushed for an international nuclear accord with Iran. Ratification is another matter.
“Only the Senate can ratify treaties. Congress cannot write the treaty itself, only the executive can do that. But then the Congress has the power to say yea or nay,” O’Hanlon explained. “Ultimately it would be a question of whether Congress would bless any possible [North Korean nuclear] deal that required U.S. money or funds or a peace treaty.”
“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.”
A Democratic majority in either the House or the Senate could launch or reinvigorate investigations of the Trump administration, including its ties to Russia, an issue that is already the focus of a special counsel probe as well as bipartisan investigations by multiple committees on Capitol Hill. Republican and Democratic lawmakers also have joined forces to slap sanctions on Moscow for a variety of misdeeds.
Asked if a Democratic legislative majority would take an even tougher line with Russia, Kaine paused before answering.
“Certainly greater scrutiny,” the Virginia Democrat said. “You won’t see Congress turning a blind eye.”
“Russia is a place where it’s Donald Trump against the rest of the American foreign policy community, rather than President Trump against the Democrats,” O’Hanlon said. “Congress has been pretty adamant, both Democratic and Republican caucuses, against Russian behavior and anxious to apply punishment.”
Regardless of the outcome of the elections, Republicans say 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.
“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.”
Kaine has long urged Congress to pass a new authorization for the use of military force in the war on terror, updating a law passed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“I hope, on matters like trade and declaration of war, Congress will haul back some of its [constitutional] power,” the senator said.
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.”