Passing the Senate Gavels

Editors’ NoteThe following post is the tenth installment of a new feature, “Monday Reflections,” in which a different Just Security editor will take an in-depth look at the big stories from the previous week and/or a look ahead to key developments on the horizon.

We begin this week in the wake of a Republican wave in the 2014 midterm elections that will define the dynamics of governance for the next two years. Given the Senate turnover and a strengthened House Republican majority, there will undoubtedly be significant ramifications for policy, presidential appointments, and congressional oversight related to national security. In this edition of Monday Reflections, I offer some initial thoughts on the coming Republican-controlled Senate, with a focus on incoming leadership of committees with jurisdiction over national security matters.

The threshold question is what post-election strategic choices the President and Congress make. Politics is said to be the art of the possible, but it is also the subject of principle. After the midterm drubbing, the President will need to assess the contours of possibility and principle in light of a new reality on a host of national security issues such as immigration reform, Iran nuclear deal negotiations, and surveillance reform. There will undoubtedly be greater pressure on him to take a harder line on Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, and Cuba. And he will have to decide to what extent he wants confrontation or compromise to define his final two years in office.

Sen. Mitch McConnell will serve as Majority Leader for the remainder of President Obama’s term as well as the 2016 presidential election. Effective Senate leaders are the premier experts at the art of the deal. By all accounts, Sen. McConnell is the consummate Senate deal-maker.

The question facing the new Majority Leader is to what ends he puts those formidable skills. Does Sen. McConnell see it in his or the national interest to cut a few signature deals with the President to demonstrate governance credibility, or instead to continue a strategy of general resistance to compromise in order to preserve Republican policy orthodoxy and deny the President credit?

Intense congressional oversight will complicate any efforts at compromise. The Senate changeover doubles the number of committees that will have the power and incentive to aggressively investigate the Executive Branch. Congressional Quarterly predicts that the “incoming Republican majority is preparing to launch a wave of attacks on the Obama administration – the kind fueled by years of pent-up frustration.” Incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has already indicated that oversight is his highest priority: “My goal is to promote transparency and accountability and restore the committee’s role as a true check on the massive and powerful federal bureaucracy.”

If Sen. McConnell decides to seek signature compromises, he faces five practical political realities: three cutting against, and two cutting in favor.

First, the Republican Conference will be more conservative. Once you add in new Senators-elect the mean ideological average of the Republican Conference is further right. Incoming senators largely ran on platforms that they would “stand up to President Obama,” so they have not been electorally conditioned to come in seeking grand compromises.

Second, the mirror image is also true: seats lost by Democrats in conservative and swing states means that the remaining Democratic caucus is more purely blue. Put another way, there are less Senate Democrats with political incentives to compromise with Republicans.  These members may calculate that ideological principle, even if it means being consigned to the policy impotence of minority status, is more attractive than concessions to Republican policies in the service of a deal with the President.

Third, a number of Sen. McConnell’s Republican Senate colleagues will be spending the next two years positioning themselves to run for President: including, at a minimum, Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. As Republican political figures, they might pursue starkly different coalitions from one another. However, during the period in which the Senate is able to engage in meaningful action in advance of 2016, these presidential contenders will be focused on Republican, rather than swing, voters. Sen. Cruz spent the last weeks of the election vowing to make the Senate “as conservative and confrontational as the Republican-led House.” This will be another significant constraint on any effort to engage in bipartisan compromises with President Obama.

Fourth, and in contrast, there are a large number of Republicans who are up for reelection in 2016 in states that Obama won and are traditionally Democratic, especially in presidential election years. They are more likely to have political incentives to push for symbolic compromises with the President.

Fifth, also on the compromise side of the ledger, Sen. McConnell may have a partner with slightly more room to negotiate. A larger House majority – even a more conservative one – may counterintuitively give Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) more room to make deals because he can lose more votes on a given issue but still maintain a majority of the majority.

Given the net arithmetic of these realities, I don’t necessarily disagree with Steve’s assessment that “[u]ltimately, whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, it’s hard to see how this Congress and this President will find common cause on almost any major issue of national security policy anytime soon.”

The composition of new Senate committee chairs also suggests considerable confrontation in the national security arena. Here is an early look at likely new Senate committee leadership:

Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) – Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Sen. McCain will undoubtedly push for a more confrontational foreign policy and more “muscular” military interventions in a variety of theaters. He will likely criticize administration military engagements as not enough, rather than seek to hinder their authorization or funding. During his career, Sen. McCain has not, however, generally prioritized oversight investigations.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) – Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), although there have been some reports that he may be deemed too moderate by colleagues to lead the panel. As noted by the Washington Post, Sen. Corker “has criticized the Obama administration’s strategy against the Islamic State, but he helped author a bill to train and equip moderate rebels in Syria.”

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) – Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is in line for the chairmanship due to the retirement of Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s (R-Ga.). He has been a strident supporter of post-9/11 [cite] surveillance efforts. Notwithstanding liberal criticism of Sen. Feinstein’s leadership of SSCI on matters of surveillance, Sen. Burr is likely much more skeptical of reform efforts.  He is also a staunch defender of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as well as a critic of the Senate Democrats’ report on torture. These positions are more suggestive of a confrontation with progressive advocates than with the Obama administration.

Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC) – Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) is set to chair HSGAC. This prospect surely reverberated through the White House Counsel’s Office. While HSGAC has more recently been associated with its homeland security jurisdiction, it also has interagency oversight jurisdiction akin to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chaired last Congress by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ca.).  Sen. Johnson has expressed interest in using his new investigative powers to bear on, per USA Today, “border security and illegal immigration, cybersecurity, homegrown terrorist threats, securing the electrical grid, streamlining oversight of the DHS and the regulation of American businesses — particularly the energy sector.”

Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) – Sen. Charles “Chuck” Grassley (R-Iowa) chose this over a trio of chairmanships available to him given his Senate standing. As noted above, oversight has been Sen. Grassley’s longstanding interest. In fact, the congressional investigation of Operation Fast and Furious that ultimately led to President Obama’s assertion of executive privilege and the House finding of contempt against Attorney General Eric Holder originated with Sen. Grassley, who passed it off to Chairman Issa due to the Senate Republican’s then-minority status. While there are still libertarian strains of thinking in the new Republican majority that may be willing to work with Democrats on surveillance reform, the effort definitely took a major hit.  Of most acute concern, reform advocates lost Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), a major champion, as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Finally, national security policy is often the function of purse strings debates, and there Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is poised to take over the Senate Appropriations Committee and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) will chair the Senate Budget Committee.

Given the makeup of the committee leadership, the onset of presidential primary season, and an aggressive oversight agenda, I do not expect a particularly hospitable climate for significant bipartisan legislative activity, much less grand bargains. 

About the Author(s)

Andy Wright

Senior Fellow and Founding Editor of Just Security, former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office. You can follow him on Twitter (@AndyMcCanse).