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Posts in "Foreign Policy"
July 14, 2014
Whatever happened to that summer blockbuster, the one about terrorism and scandal that would be must-see congressional TV?
Don’t expect to be able to tune in to the Benghazi hearings anytime soon. No air date for the premiere has been announced, because the pre-production work is off to a deliberately slow start.
The reason is that the impresario, Rep. Trey Gowdy, is much more experienced as a prosecutor than as an executive producer. And district attorneys, at least as much as studio moguls, are trained to refrain from going public if they have any doubt about their work being ready for prime time.
For reasons both procedural and political, Gowdy has reached a conclusion 10 weeks after he was handed the gavel of a newly created select House committee: The moment is not nearly ripe for the panel to convene in the open to talk about any events before, during or after Sept. 11, 2012, the night when terrorists overran the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Libya’s second biggest city and four Americans were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
During his first two terms, Gowdy has gained notoriety as one of Republicans’ most tenacious inquisitors of administration officials, a skill honed during his previous 16 years busting bad guys in South Carolina. His reputation for public zealotry aside, Gowdy understands how caution behind the scenes is the prosecutorial standard.
Many more criminal cases are settled with tidy plea bargains than with of roll-of-the-dice jury trials, and dozens of depositions are taken behind closed doors for every witness cross-examined in open court. The analogue on Capitol Hill is that a whole lot more fact-finding gets done by professional committee investigators away from cameras than by lawmakers posturing in front of them.
Besides, pursuing the inquiry for a while longer before any hearings works to the Republicans’ strategic advantage in several ways.
July 8, 2014
In the short term, anyway, the tide of good news seems to have turned in favor of Robert Menendez.
Officials in his old New Jersey congressional district named an elementary school for the Senate Foreign Relations chairman a few months ago. Then the Democrat celebrated his 60th birthday by announcing his engagement (in the Rotunda) to Alicia Mucci, a 45-year-old widowed constituent he’d met at a fundraiser.
But the best publicity Menendez has enjoyed all year arrived Monday, when the Washington Post reported on evidence the Cuban government may have fabricated and planted the lurid story that has smudged the senator’s reputation since just before his 2012 re-election bid. Menendez crowed to CNN Tuesday that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the regime in Havana had concocted the smear he had hired several underage Dominican prostitutes — because, he said, it “would do anything it can to stop me.”
What all the righteous indignation and melodramatic skullduggery obscures, however, is that Menendez continues to face questions about behavior that’s far more legally and politically problematic than the already substantially discredited tales about his cavorting at sex parties in the Caribbean.
For nearly two years, the Justice Department has been investigating whether Menendez illegally used his congressional office to benefit the business interests of his most generous donors, particularly Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. The Senate Ethics Committee appears to have put its similar inquiry on hold in deference to the Feds.
If federal prosecutors end up alleging Menendez broke the law, that would be a much bigger deal for the already dismal ethical reputation of Congress — as well as for the Democratic Party and Latino community — than whether an antagonistic nation was able to make headway with an ambitious conspiracy to ruin an influential lawmaker.
June 25, 2014
Parsing an important congressional roll call, let alone comparing two votes on similar questions a dozen years apart, is a complex and caveat-infused exercise.
So reactions ranging from “Of course!” and “Aha!” to “Who knew?” and “What’s up with that?” are bound to spring up when reviewing last week’s House vote on funding for a revived combat operation in Iraq — especially when aligning that tally sheet with the one authorizing the initial invasion of the country.
During the three days of debate on the annual defense spending package, most of the lobbying furor and press attention was on Pentagon procurement priorities, the House’s move to stop any transfers from Guantánamo and the drive to curtail government spying. But for hard core hawks and ardent doves, the key vote was about whether to bar any new U.S. combat operations to help quell the sectarian warfare that’s overtaking Iraq.
The outcome wasn’t even close. Just 3 out of every 8 members (165 total) took the anti-war hard line. (Instead, the House adopted by voice vote a requirement that the administration consult and report to Congress before reviving military involvement.)
While the lopsided result preserved all of President Barack Obama’s options for using force, it masks an important political reality he will be pressed to keep in mind during the next five months. Members of his party with the most to lose on Election Day are minimally supportive of any more war under this commander in chief. Full story
June 24, 2014
It took less than 72 hours after his election for Kevin McCarthy to reveal an unambiguous and extremely consequential way he’ll be different from his predecessor.
In what’s looking like the year’s hottest dispute between small-government crowd and the business community, the incoming House majority leader took a surprising side on Sunday. The Californian is joining the hard core fiscal conservatives who want to close the Export-Import Bank, which for eight decades has been one of the main tools at the government’s disposal for helping American businesses.
The agency steps in when private credit is scarce or expensive. Using money borrowed from the Treasury, it either makes or guarantees loans so U.S. companies can expand their exports of aircraft, farm machinery, power generation equipment, telecommunications hardware and even gourmet food. The right reviles this as a prime example of corporate welfare and derides the Ex-Im Bank as an agent of crony capitalism.
During his time in the Republican leadership Eric Cantor was an anchor for the opposite side, which argues that such credit financing is a no-risk way to leverage taxpayer dollars in the interest of creating jobs and sustaining the nation’s manufacturing base. The Virginian was more responsible than anyone else for steering the Ex-Im Bank to temporary safety two years ago, when the waves of conservative criticism first got big enough to pose a potential threat. He was so well known as a defender of the bank that stock in one of its biggest customers, Boeing, plunged 3 percent the day after Cantor lost his primary, wiping away all its gains so far in the year.
The anxiety was fueled in part by anticipation that the Ex-Im Bank’s most influential House critic, Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, would run for majority leader. When he demurred, allowing the majority whip to secure his promotion with ease, the big companies relaxed a bit — because McCarthy had been on Cantor’s side in 2012 in supporting the current reauthorization of the agency.
But all elections have consequences, and two of them were on display when McCarthy revealed his 180-degree change of position on “Fox News Sunday.” The winner’s pivotal bloc of supporters will need to feel rewarded sooner than later, so it was only a matter of time before the new floor leader would need to stake out a strong position on legislation that’s a top priority of his allies in the tea party faction.
Not to mention an important rival who took a pass this time around could change his mind as soon as November, when leadership elections for the 115th Congress will be held. So it made sense for McCarthy to act quickly to shrink some of the ideological daylight between himself and Hensarling. Full story
June 17, 2014
Some of the most pointed passages in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new memoir confront the congressional Republican criticism about Benghazi. That’s hardly a surprise, given that the book is so clearly a positioning document for another presidential run in which one major line of GOP attack will be against the former secretary of State’s handling of the assault on that U.S. diplomatic post in Libya.
What comes off as much more of a surprise is how Clinton steers almost entirely clear of criticizing individual Republicans from Capitol Hill, while singling out a collection of prominent establishment GOP members for praise. The roster of congressional name checks in “Hard Choices,” in fact, is remarkably bipartisan. She says nice things about her dealings with a dozen Democratic senators or representatives, but almost as many Republicans, during her eight years in the Senate and her subsequent four years at the State Department.
Counting up the mentions in a prominent politician’s book is among a typical Washington striver’s bad habits, and many on the Hill have been doing just that in the week since the book went on sale.
But in this case, the exercise could offer a clue about how Clinton may deal with Republicans if she seeks or wins the White House in two years. She may be content to remain on decent terms with a small cadre of GOP centrists, the sort President Barack Obama has labeled the “common sense caucus,” while disdaining and dismissing her legions of conservative critics without calling them out individually. Full story
May 28, 2014
Updated, 3:20 p.m. | With public hearings still weeks away, it’s too soon to fairly predict whether a purely political show trial or a riveting investigatory breakthrough is in store from the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi.
But it’s not too early to look at the cast of characters who make up the panel’s membership for clues about what each side has in mind. (Check out our handy cheat sheet.)
In some aspects, the makeup of the parties’ rosters is fundamentally different, in ways that make clear the Republicans are planning to be on offense from the outset while the Democrats are going to dig in to play defense. In other areas, the group is a reminder of the stark biographical differences between the two caucuses. But in a few ways, the committee’s characteristics are curiously different from the House as a whole.
Most consequentially, while one out of every eight districts nationwide is at least somewhat politically competitive at the moment, no one on the select committee sits in one. All 12 are virtually certain to win re-election in November. That means none of them has any short-term political need to adopt the role of evenhanded inquisitor, because none needs to play it down the middle to appeal to the swing voters who could decide their fate.
On the contrary, the Republicans have been given an opportunity to fortify their conservative bases by taking on the Obama administration as forcefully as possible, just as the Democrats have been afforded a way to appeal to their liberal bases by adopting a “Let’s move on, there’s nothing to see here” approach. Full story
May 5, 2014
For those lulled into thinking the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has devolved into nothing more than an over-the-top Hollywood-D.C. mashup schmooze fest, one small scene offered a reminder of how real congressional business can get done in the least likely places.
While the gawking was focused on celebrities like the drummer Questlove and the actor Freida Pinto, three prominent Republicans huddled near the bar at one Saturday evening reception: pollster and messaging savant Frank Luntz, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Trey Gowdy, a conservative second-termer from South Carolina who’s about to take his first step into the national spotlight.
Their body language made clear the conversation was serious, so glad-handers should please stand clear. Still, it’s safe to assume the talk touched on the House GOP leadership’s decision to reverse course and establish a select House committee to investigate the 2012 terrorist assault on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, announced Monday that Gowdy would be the chairman, because he’s “as dogged, focused and serious-minded as they come.”
For the Republicans, creating the panel is a high-reward as well as a high-risk proposition. On the one hand, its hearings are guaranteed to excite and solidify the party’s conspiratorial and conservative base right through the campaign season, while forcing the White House to keep playing defense on another high-profile front and making life particularly unpleasant for Hillary Rodham Clinton (who was secretary of State during the attack) just as she’s deciding whether to run for president in 2016.
On the other hand, its work will subject the GOP to criticism that perpetuating congressional interest in an incident that eight Hill committees have already hashed over is an especially wrong focus in this election year, which should be about promoting policies to put more people to work at home instead of more costly political theatrics about a foreign policy foul-up.
But for the House’s newest would-be chairman, the next six months represent a career-altering opportunity with more potential upsides than downsides. Full story
March 25, 2014
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
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
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.
September 23, 2013
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
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
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
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
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