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April 26, 2015

Posts in "Foreign Policy"

March 10, 2015

GOP Aim: Make Menendez’s Troubles About Reid

Republicans are hoping to tie troubles Menendez is facing to Reid, right. Image from 2011. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans are hoping to tie troubles Menendez is facing to Reid, right. Image from 2011. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans may not realistically smell another Senate seat about to become available, but they’re moving quickly on the very real scent of political blood. And their nose for scandal has them salivating at more than the fate of Sen. Robert Menendez, who may be only weeks from facing federal corruption charges.

Some in the GOP also sniff something fishy in the way the Obama administration’s Justice Department leaked word of the pending prosecution last week, just as New Jersey’s senior senator was ratcheting up his standing as the most prominent Democratic critic of the president’s foreign policy. Other Republicans insinuate there is news that really stinks, suggesting Minority Leader Harry Reid may have not only abetted but also may have benefited from some of Menendez’s questionable behavior — and he isn’t signaling any interest in separating his colleague from the Senate power structure.

Full story

January 22, 2015

Congress, Obama Each Say ‘You First’ on War Authorization

Boehner and Obama each have demurred on introducing a war authorization measure. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Boehner and Obama each have demurred on introducing a war authorization measure. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

On the topic of authorizing the use of military force against the Islamic State, the state of play between Congress and President Barack Obama is reminiscent of some famous cartoon humor from a century ago.

The premise of “Alphonse and Gaston,” a comic strip that ran in the old New York Journal for a decade starting in 1901, was that the title characters were essentially paralyzed by their devotion to an extreme and unnecessary form of deferential politeness. Neither would ever do anything or travel anywhere because each insisted that the other precede him. Full story

December 4, 2014

Obama’s Push for Political Ambassadors Reaching Lame-Duck Limit

Baucus is the ambassador to China. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Baucus is the ambassador to China. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Perhaps the last important contribution Max Baucus made to the culture of the Senate, where he spent 35 years, was to offer a blunt truth before becoming the American envoy in Beijing.

“I’m no real expert on China,” the Montana Democrat confessed during the January hearing on his nomination to be ambassador to the nation with the most people and the biggest economy in the world. But six days later, his colleagues voted, 96-0, to confirm him anyway.

The candor of that episode offered a glimpse into a debate that’s been underway for a century, and which brewed in the background all year before bubbling into public view this week. What should be the limit on a president’s ability to use ambassadorships as rewards for his political allies?

Full story

September 16, 2014

On Ebola, Obama’s Bold Move Is Greeted on Hill With Eager Assent

Contrary to what seemed certain as the week began, American military boots will soon be on the ground to combat a societal scourge on the other side of the world. And virtually no one in Congress sounds opposed to the idea.

That’s because President Barack Obama’s expanding global assertiveness, with congressional buy-in viewed as totally welcome but rarely required, inserted the country into another international crisis Tuesday. He said he would send 3,000 members of the armed forces to West Africa to provide medical and logistical support to local officials overwhelmed by the quickening spread of the deadly Ebola virus. He’ll also be taking $500 million out of the Pentagon fund for the longstanding war-fighting efforts and using it to open 17 treatment centers in the region.

“Ebola is now an epidemic of the likes that we have not seen before,” the president declared. “It’s spiraling out of control, it is getting worse. It’s spreading faster, and exponentially.”

The new deployment will be six times larger than the number of additional military advisers Obama announced last week that he was dispatching to help contain ISIS in Iraq. And the amount he’s spending to erect those field hospitals is the same as what it’s going to cost for the U.S. military to train and arm Syrian rebels so they can confront that militant extremist group’s rise in their country.

Notwithstanding those comparisons, there was only a small amount of discussion about the newest military surge Tuesday on Capitol Hill — especially when compared to the intensifying debate about Obama’s efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

One of the reasons for that is obvious: Members of Congress generally feel both a moral and a political imperative to take some sort of formal position before their uniformed constituents are sent on new as well as dangerous missions. That’s why there was no way the House and Senate would recess for the midterm campaign without at least voting on an authorization for the drilling-and-equipping effort.

In contrast, the medics, engineers and logistical support troops being dispatched by the end of the month to combat Ebola should be able to stay out of harm’s way. (They will be given all the protective gear and training they need to avoid becoming infected with the virus — which means avoiding direct contact with the bodily fluids of people already visibly sick.)

But, in other ways, the threats to Americans from ISIS and Ebola are comparable. Both the militants and the epidemic are rapidly spreading halfway around the word. While neither phenomena has yet tarnished U.S. soil, each holds potential to create transformational chaos closer to home soon enough. The administration has expressed concern not only about the capabilities of ISIS for domestic terrorist attacks, but also about the potential for Ebola to spread worldwide and mutate into a more easily transmitted disease.

There’s also the argument that Ebola’s accelerating spread in Africa is becoming a topflight national security threat, because the threat to the fragile governments and economies of the continent could open safe havens for incubating new terrorist groups.

Full story

July 14, 2014

Delayed Benghazi Hearings Equal Deliberate Quiet

Gowdy is taking a deliberate, prosecutorial approach to the Benghazi select committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Gowdy is taking a prosecutorial approach as chairman of the special Benghazi committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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.

Full story

July 8, 2014

Cuban Conspiracy Aside, Menendez Troubles Remain

Menendez can breathe a sigh of relief — for the moment. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Menendez can breathe a sigh of relief — for the moment. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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.

Full story

June 25, 2014

Democratic Doves, Threatened Incumbents Complicate President’s Choice on Military Action in Iraq

Kirkpatrick is among the embattled Democrats whose Iraq funding vote could matter in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Kirkpatrick is one of the Democrats for whom the Iraq funding vote could matter on Nov. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

McCarthy Rewards Insurgents in First Big About-Face

McCarthy has changed his position on the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

McCarthy changed his mind on Ex-Im Bank reauthorization. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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 114th 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

How Hillary Might Deal With the Hill: New Book Offers Hints

The new Clinton book has high praise for McCain, seen here in 2013, and other Republicans. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The new Clinton book has high praise for McCain, seen here in 2013, and other Republicans. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Political Typecasting on the Benghazi Panel

Cummings will lead the special panel. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Cummings will lead the special panel. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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

Gowdy Tailor-Made for GOP’s Benghazi Assignment

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Hill’s Bipartisan Deadlock on Phone Records May Be Easing

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

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

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

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

Pelosi, Boehner, Kerry, Reid, McConnell

(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

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