Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
April 25, 2014

Posts in "Foreign Policy"

March 25, 2014

Hill’s Bipartisan Deadlock on Phone Records May Be Easing

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NSA compromise is brewing for House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., right, and ranking member Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Eight months ago, in one of its most important and fascinatingly nonpartisan votes of recent memory, the House came up just seven members short of eviscerating the government’s vast effort to keep tabs on American phone habits.

The roll call revealed a profound divide in Congress on how assertively the intelligence community should be allowed to probe into the personal lives of private citizens in the cause of thwarting terrorism. It is a split that has stymied legislative efforts to revamp the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection programs.

Until now, maybe. Senior members with jurisdiction over the surveillance efforts, in both parties and on both sides of the Hill, are signaling generalized and tentative but nonetheless clear support for the central elements of a proposed compromise that President Barack Obama previewed Tuesday and will formally unveil by week’s end.

The president, in other words, may be close to finding the congressional sweet spot on one of the most vexing problems he’s faced — an issue that surged onto Washington’s agenda after the secret phone records collection efforts were disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

If Obama can seal the deal, which he’s pledged to push for by the end of June, it would almost surely rank among his most important second-term victories at the Capitol. It also would create an exception that proves the rule about the improbability of bipartisan agreement on hot-button issues in an election season. Full story

November 19, 2013

Sleeper Alert: Disabilities Treaty May Rise Anew in the Senate

disabilities presser002 120312 445x295 Sleeper Alert: Disabilities Treaty May Rise Anew in the Senate

Senators and disabled activists held a news conference in December 2012 to urge passage of a U.N. treaty on people with disabilities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

His approval rating may have sunk to a new low, right there with the portion of cooperative spirit left in the Republican ranks, but President Barack Obama is gambling that he can somehow reverse a searing, if low-profile, loss from a year ago on a proposal with global implications and domestic political import.

The campaign will formally be joined Thursday morning, when Secretary of State John Kerry will come to Capitol Hill to press anew for Senate ratification of a treaty known as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The pact, to which 138 other countries have committed, is written with the principal goal of extending around the word a system of accommodations very similar to what’s spelled out for this country in the Americans with Disabilities Act. That law, passed 23 years ago with overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats alike, stands as the most recent important new civil rights law enacted with genuinely expansive bipartisan backing, and public support for it remains strong.

Obama is betting he can resurrect just enough of that that cross-party spirit to score an upset victory for the treaty on his second attempt. His team has not yet revealed what tactics he has up his sleeve to get there, but for two reasons it’s understandable why he’s trying. Full story

October 30, 2013

From Churchill to Mandela: A Torch of Generational Leadership

churchill103013 445x305 From Churchill to Mandela: A Torch of Generational Leadership

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

In a city studded with statues commemorating foreigners who have inspired the United States, no world figure has attained more tribute than Winston Churchill. At least for the time being.

The bust dedicated at the Capitol on Wednesday becomes D.C.’s third prominent visage of Churchill, undeniably one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century and the first of only seven people ever awarded honorary American citizenship.

Engineering that honor has been of intense interest to Speaker John A. Boehner, who is second to none of the myriad members in both parties who claim Churchill as their inspiration for leadership, political acumen and rhetorical skill. It’s a generation’s bow to a quickly fading era.

Full story

September 23, 2013

Senators Want Obama to Hold Hard Line on Iran, Confident He’s on the Same Page

One of the more reliable tricks in the congressional publicity playbook is to write and release a letter demanding the president do something — right after getting word that the hoped-for decision has already been made.

Looking to reward a recently helpful senator or to woo a House member in advance of a close vote, past White Houses have done plenty of trading in this sort of insider information. A heads-up about an impending personnel move, public works proposal or policy shift is golden to a lawmaker, who can then create an “earned media” windfall by urging the impending action — then claiming some prescience or credit when the thing comes to pass.

“I was glad the president took my advice last week and nominated our mayor for the judgeship,” for example, or, “Thankfully he understood my case for a new mess hall at Camp Swampy and included money for that project in his budget.”

President Barack Obama’s legislative affairs team hasn’t done much helping of lawmakers with such leaks, one of the many reasons his relations with all corners of the Hill remain lackluster six months (and a couple of canceled picnics) after a series of lavish and intimate dinners looked to get congressional outreach on better footing in the second term.

That’s why the letters espousing a presidential hard line toward Iran, released Monday by four of the most prominent and press-savvy foreign policy voices in the Senate, appeared particularly noteworthy — seeking to put words in Obama’s mouth just hours before he’s expected to use them. Full story

September 11, 2013

After Bowing to Congress on Syria, Then Pulling Back, Will Obama Ever Return?

Have the first congressional votes in a decade on authorizing military force been postponed indefinitely, or effectively canceled altogether?

Members returned to work Wednesday scratching their heads over that question, which President Barack Obama left unanswered during his speech to the nation Tuesday night. Lawmakers got no guidance from the White House, which declined to offer any sort of deadline for its sudden switch to pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Syria.

A bit more definition is possible when Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday to negotiate details of a seemingly long-shot plan for teams of international monitors to collect and destroy all of President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons.

There’s also a chance for some timeline to emerge at the United Nations, where delegates from the United States, France and Great Britain are working on a Security Council resolution requiring the government in Damascus to turn over its stockpile or face globally sanctioned military reprisal.

The deliberative metabolism of diplomacy and the complexities of the plan sprung only in the past few days suggest it will be near the end of the month before it’s plausible to decide whether the Russian and U.N. approaches can be sustained.

It will also probably take a couple of weeks to discern if Syria, which has signaled cooperation with Russia’s disarmament call, is only doing so as a stalling tactic — designed to play for extra time, during which congressional and public support for a punitive strike might shrink even more than it already has.

Coincidentally or not, the president’s call for a timeout in his drive for the Hill’s backing came after it was abundantly clear he wasn’t even close to having the votes he needed, and that his chances were slipping by the hour.

By the time he went before the prime-time TV cameras, tallies of lawmakers’ stated positions showed Obama had at most two dozen “yes” votes locked down in the Senate and at least three dozen senators against giving him the authority. The latter was very close to the 41 needed to stop the use-of-force resolution with a filibuster.

The unofficial whip counts in the House were even more problematic: Less than 10 percent of members were in favor of a military strike, at least 40 percent committed in their opposition and at least another 10 percent leaning toward “no.”

The decision to grab at diplomatic options, even knowing they might dissolve into mirages soon enough, buys not only Obama but also a balky Congress an uncertain amount of leeway to paper over their differences. All the players are war-weary. They’re just figuring out how to exorcise their exhaustion in different ways.

A good bet is Obama won’t take his hand off the congressional pause button unless he’s confident he’s turned legislative momentum in his favor. Having extracted himself from an almost certain defeat that would have weakened his standing abroad and on the Hill, he has absolutely nothing to gain from subjecting himself to that predicament again.

There’s a chance the president will eventually declare that the need for a congressional vote has become moot, and most members will tacitly defer to him. That could happen if:

  • Almost the whole world lines up behind U.N. language countenancing airstrikes if Syria doesn’t make good on its promises and there’s a face-saving consensus in Congress that such a resolution gives Obama the only official stamp of approval he needs to send in the Tomahawks if necessary.
  • Syria bends over backwards in cooperating, refuting the skeptics who say it’s nearly impossible under ideal circumstances — let alone during a civil war — to rapidly collect unconventional weapons from dozens of widespread secret locations.

More likely, there will be a new drive to rally Congress behind a conditional use-of-force resolution once Syria’s cooperation looks to be neither genuine or fast enough for the comfort of the administration or congressional hawks. A fine time for that scenario to start moving to the fore is the week after next, when the House is still awkwardly on course to be away for an end-of-the-fiscal-year “district work period.”

If the GOP majority leadership sticks by that schedule, it would generate just the sort of news vacuum that could be filled by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They remain the most strongly in favor of punishing Syria with military might and the most keenly interested in asserting either the congressional prerogative or the political imperative for granting permission for such shows of force.

McCain said Wednesday that he won’t wait long before deciding if Syria is deploying a “rope-a-dope” delaying tactic.

Obama “sure has created one awkward situation for himself,” says Julian E. Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “If he returns to the Hill to ask for any kind of authorization, he’ll have to admit his diplomacy didn’t work, which will put him in an even weaker position than he is now and make it even harder for him to get what he wants.”

September 9, 2013

Razorback’s Edge: Why Are Arkansas Rivals Split on Syria?

For one of the clearest illustrations yet of the complex and unpredictable nature of the Syria strike voting dynamics in Congress, consider the Arkansas delegation and its pair of statewide candidates.

When he was first a candidate for the Senate, Democrat Mark Pryor backed a Republican president, George W. Bush, when he sought congressional authority to attack Iraq to prevent its threatened use of chemical weapons. But this past weekend, Pryor announced that he’ll almost certainly vote against a resolution backing the president of his own party, who wants to launch military strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons.

Barack Obama, he said, has not proved “a compelling national security interest,” defined “a mission that has a definitive end-state” or built an international coalition to collaborate in an attack.

Pryor’s 2014 challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, last week completed his own even faster whiplash-inducing maneuver — going the other way.

Cotton won the House seat covering the fertile expanses south and west of Little Rock last year by campaigning against whatever policies Obama advocated, at home or abroad. But, even before Obama asked Congress for backing on Syria, the freshman congressman had emerged as one of the most vocal and enthusiastic proponents in either party of the president’s approach.

American action is needed, he said, to uphold international opposition to chemical weapon use, reassure Israel and other Middle East allies and preserve the global credibility of a president he generally disdains. “Put simply, our core national security interests are at stake,” he said in direct rebuttal of the Pryor view.

These opposite-spinning evolutions are a reminder that, whenever the “all politics is local” aphorism doesn’t explain how electoral rivals ended up in the same place, the “all politics is situational” corollary probably helps explain why they’re not. Full story

September 3, 2013

Ahead of Hearing, Solid Support for Syria Strike at Senate Foreign Relations

While President Barack Obama spent the morning behind closed doors rallying the bipartisan congressional leadership to his side, an equally important hurdle for his Syria policy comes this afternoon, when 18 senators on the Foreign Relations Committee will publicly reveal whether they’re for, against or undecided on authorizing U.S. military intervention.

The White House’s basic strategy for getting congressional approval of the president’s plan of attack looks to be simple: Lobby hard to secure a strong bipartisan majority in the generally more interventionist Senate during the first half of next week, and hope that show of support assist the president in persuading a narrow majority in the more skeptical and isolationist House to go along.

How easily that approach can be sustained will become clear soon after the committee convenes Tuesday at 2:30 p.m., but the initial indications look promising for the president. Full story

August 27, 2013

Strike on Syria Coming Soon — With Hill Informed, but Not Asked for Permission

A punitive assault on Syria will be launched as soon as the end of the week, but not before details of the strike have been relayed to all the senior members of Congress entitled to advance notice of such military action.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made that much clear this morning. He echoed the other hawkish former senator with a top foreign policy job in the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry, leaving no doubt that air strikes are inevitable and relatively imminent.

The Pentagon has moved four destroyers into the eastern Mediterranean and has fighter jets and bombers on standby “to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take,” Hagel told The BBC, adding, “We are ready to go.”

One predicate to the strike is that the United States will formally declare, probably by the end of the day, that its intelligence agencies have conclusive evidence that Bashar Assad’s government launched a large-scale chemical weapons attack in the 2-year-old Syrian civil war.   Full story

August 7, 2013

Hill Applauds as Obama Scraps Summit With Putin

There is no audible opposition from Congress to President Barack Obama’s announcement today that he’s backing out of next month’s scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The tenor of the initial reaction from lawmakers in both parties has been totally supportive of the diplomatic slap, which is pushing the United States closer to an outright canceling of the “reset” in Russian relations that Obama had been long promoting — and which many in Congress had been resisting. Many senators and House members had been urging the president to spurn the long-planned Putin meeting. If there was an undercurrent of criticism after today’s announcement, it was in mumbled versions of “What took him so long?” from the president’s most ardent Republican critics.

The presidential snub is a clear signal of anger and frustration with the Putin government for permitting fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden to remain in Russia instead of returning him to the United States so he could be prosecuted for his disclosures of national security secrets. But tension between the two countries has been building for months, most acutely over the Russians’ support for the Assad regime in Syria. Full story

July 9, 2013

Bipartisan Divide on Hill Means Egypt Aid Will Keep Flowing

Very unusual fault lines are hardening in Congress on the most consequential foreign policy dispute of the summer, with senior lawmakers in both parties taking opposite stances about whether aid to Egypt should be withheld if civilians aren’t quickly put back in charge.

The debate poses the classic question of whether it is more important for United Sates foreign policy to focus on advancing American democratic principles around the word, which would mean cutting off the aid, or to put a premium on protecting the country’s current economic and military objectives, which would mean keeping the money flowing.

The discussion is moot, however, as long as President Barack Obama holds to the view that what’s happened in Cairo during the past week does not amount to a coup d’etat, which was the preliminary position the White House staked out Monday. A law expanded 18 months ago compels the administration to withdraw aid from any country where the military has seized power by force from a democratically elected government. It doesn’t permit the president to waive the rules, but neither does it provide Congress with any legislative vehicle for countermanding his decision. Full story

July 8, 2013

As Pentagon Furloughs Start, Congress Yawns

One of the most consequential effects of the sequester began today: Weekly unpaid furlough days for more than 650,000 civilian workers at the Defense Department, who will effectively see their pay cut by 20 percent for the  final 11 weeks of this budget year.

All the commissaries at domestic military installations are closed, for example, and will be every Monday through the end of September. (Most agencies within the department have decided to salve the economic sting a tiny bit by setting the furloughs on Mondays and Fridays, so that workers might at least enjoy a series of long weekends.)

But the visuals of closed cafeterias, equipment maintenance sheds, supply warehouses, payroll offices and the like will have absolutely no effect on the pace of congressional effort toward untangling the budget morass. Full story

June 19, 2013

Does Obama Have the Votes for Another Nuclear Treaty?

obama061913 445x272 Does Obama Have the Votes for Another Nuclear Treaty?

Obama waves to invited guests Wednesday in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. (Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama proposed a one-third reduction in both American and Russian nuclear arms today, but any agreement would face long odds of approval by the Senate.

The proposal was the substantive centerpiece of the president’s symbolically resonant speech at Brandenburg Gate, which once divided East and West Germany. That’s where Obama drew a rapturous crowd as a candidate five years ago, where Ronald Reagan gave his “Tear down that wall” Cold War admonition a quarter-century ago, and where John F. Kennedy declared “Ich bin ein Berliner” half a century ago.

“We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” Obama said.

It was not immediately clear, from either his text or materials released by the White House, whether the president is proposing negotiations on another Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or a less formalized way of getting the two sides “to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures,” as he said. Full story

June 5, 2013

Susan Rice Replacement a Proxy for What GOP Hates About Obama’s Foreign Policies

Republicans have already started bellyaching about the president canceling his charm offensive and sticking a thumb in their eye by promoting the person they view as the main face of the Benghazi mess. But there’s absolutely nothing they can do to stop Barack Obama from installing Susan Rice as his top national security adviser.

The job is the most important post in the entire executive branch (other than White House chief of staff) that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. So Rice’s move — a sooner-or-later sure thing ever since her secretary of State ambitions were quashed this winter — can be carried out whenever Obama decides it’s OK for her to leave the United Nations.

That probably won’t be until her successor as U.N. envoy is confirmed. And it may take some time, and at least one contentious hearing, before Samantha Power gets to return to government service and move to New York. A fight over her confirmation looks to be a proxy for what irks the GOP about administration foreign policy. Full story

April 8, 2013

Could Margaret Thatcher Win a GOP Primary?

An abiding aphorism for the Republican Party’s rightward shift is that Ronald Reagan  couldn’t win a party primary today. Something very similar could be said of Margaret Thatcher.

The ocean of hagiography that poured out from congressional conservatives after her death Monday belies a simple truth. A quick read of the Thatcher record reveals a lot of daylight between the way she ran Britain in the 1980s and the way the GOP would run the federal government now. Full story

March 19, 2013

10 Years Later: The Iraq War Changed Congress, Too

The 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War on Tuesday was a generally muted affair, reflecting the sustained national ambivalence about whether it merited the deaths of 4,488 Americans in uniform, the wounding of another 32,000 or the deficit spending that crested above $800 billion even before the last combat troops left 15 months ago.

That more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died — and that their country remains beset by sectarian tensions, terrorist bombings and political stalemate — helps account for the fact that the American public is split over whether the conflict was worth it: 46 percent said the war mostly achieved its aims, while 43 percent called it mainly a failure, according to a Pew Research Center poll from last weekend. That’s a statistical tie given the poll’s margin of error.

That the war has had a profound effect on the institution of Congress during the past decade is not up for dispute.

The invasion was the last major military operation granted an explicit, advance stamp of approval by Congress, and the lopsided and bipartisan votes of October 2002 remain the only time lawmakers ever authorized a preemptive strike on a sovereign nation. Full story

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