Election outcome may complicate Obama's foreign policy

President Barack Obama says it feels bad to see his Democratic allies lose their House seat in droves, and makes him question what he could have done differently. (Nov. 3)
By Mary Beth Sheridan and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 8:10 PM

The midterm elections focused almost exclusively on domestic issues. But Tuesday's outcome may complicate President Obama's foreign-policy goals, with Republicans using their new strength to cut aid to other countries and question the president's policies toward countries such as Syria, Venezuela and Israel, officials and analysts said.

The Republican capture of the House means that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), a feisty Cuban American conservative, will probably take command of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, replacing Howard L. Berman (D-Calif), who had been largely sympathetic to Obama's agenda.

Ros-Lehtinen is expected to "bring additional scrutiny to some issues that wasn't taking place before," said one GOP congressional aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the congresswoman has not yet been formally appointed.

Ros-Lehtinen is a strong supporter of Israel. She is likely to grill administration officials on their policies toward North Korea and Syria and to focus attention on the influence of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Latin America.

The Florida Republican also has been a strong proponent of withholding contributions from the United Nations to force reform of that organization.

Although the Senate stayed in Democratic hands, it will probably be even harder for President Obama to win ratification of treaties, a process that requires 67 votes.

The White House is hoping the Senate will use the lame-duck session to approve one of Obama's main foreign-policy accomplishments, a nuclear arms-reduction treaty with Russia. Democrats will control at least 58 seats until January, when the number could drop as low as 52.

Administration officials acknowledge that it will be harder to pass START if the vote slips to next year. But they are banking on striking a deal with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz), who has influence with many Republicans. Kyl's main demand has been guarantees for a multibillion-dollar program to modernize American nuclear-weapons labs.

"If we're able to satisfy those [concerns], which we're working to do, that opens a pathway forward, whether it's with this set of Republicans or the next," said one senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to comment publicly.

The biggest losers in the midterm elections were moderate Democrats who were the staunchest backers of the adminstration's Afghanistan policy. Their defeat will yield a Democratic caucus that is significantly more antiwar. The Obama administration will, in turn, probably be forced to depend more heavily on Republicans, who have generally backed the overall strategy in Afghanistan.

"The level of inconvenience may go up for the Obama administration, but I don't think it will be likely to force a policy change," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

If the Afghan war is still widely viewed as going poorly next year, though, it is possible that some conservative Republicans could break with their party.

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