Election outcome may complicate Obama's foreign policy

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.

"There is a libertarian streak that is starting to emerge in the Republican party . . . that has called for significant reductions in defense spending," said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank.

The Democratic party losses, however, could have a much bigger impact on Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's push to pare waste from the defense budget. Several moderate Democrats who were respected voices on defense policy, such as Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.) and Rep. John M. Spratt (S.C.), lost their seats Tuesday. Their support probably would have given Gates's efficiency efforts a major boost inside the Democratic Party.

The uncertain political environment will also make it harder for new lawmakers from either party to support cuts to the defense budget that could cost jobs, analysts said.

Lee Hamilton, the former congressman who now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Obama might have an easier time getting funding for the war in Afghanistan from a Congress in which Republicans were more dominant.

But "funding for foreign affairs in general, the State Department, development aid, will probably be tighter," he said.

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who is known for her bipartisan efforts, is expected to become the head of the Appropriations panel that doles out foreign aid. But when it comes to spending, "you're going to have a lot of orders coming down from a higher pay grade" in the party, said one congressional staffer, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Several analysts said the Republican victories would bode well for passage of pending free-trade treaties with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

But Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the conventional wisdom could be wrong in this case.

"It's not clear that will be the case, given that some of the Republicans who won are not traditionalists and also because of the economic context - the high unemployment and slow growth," he said.

sheridanm@washpost.com jaffeg@washpost.com

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