Despite both houses of Congress now firmly under Republican control, it is unlikely that U.S. foreign policy will see dramatic changes in the years ahead, say experts.
Fueled by popular discontent with Democratic President Barack Obama, Republicans took Senate control Tuesday night following tightly contested midterm elections in which a little more than a third of Senate seats, and all 435 House seats, were up for grabs.
Republicans needed a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate. And they more than did so, winning the chamber in a blowout and handily maintaining their hold in the House.
"The results of last night was really the nightmare scenario for Democrats,” said John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "It is in many ways the worst outcome that they could have predicted in terms of the number of Senate seats that were lost.”
The last two years of Obama’s second term are now likely to see continued clashes with an adversarial Congress as the president seeks to pursue policies at home and abroad. Gridlock will now "absolutely prevail” in Washington, Hudak said.
"What both parties face – the president and what congressional Republicans face right now – is being held accountable for nothing getting done,” he added.
Foreign policy is a "real opportunity” for Obama to make headway. He has near complete control over the course of America’s efforts abroad,Hudak said.
The division of powers within the American systemplaces foreign policy firmly within the purview of the president. But congressional approval is required forfunding, sanctioning war, and the appointment of key foreign posts.
"The good thing about the American system is that foreign policy is almost solely constitutionally in the hands of the president of the United States,” said Mark Perry, an independent analyst. "I don’t think there is any question that we’re going to see more complaints and more criticism of Obama, but are we going to see any action on the part of the Congress to embrace a foreign policy agenda? I doubt it.”
Whether attempting to push back on Russia’s continued actions in Ukraine, or end Syria’s ongoing civil war and the spillover that has decimated much of the region, the lack of an appetite at home for expansive military confrontations will likely silence some of the more hardline voices in Congress.
"The Republicans who were elected yesterday are very unlikely to promote intervention, or vote more money for war costs that are upwards now of $2 trillion over a period of 15 years. It’s just not a very smart economic policy, and the Republicans are going to be very careful not to do that,” Perry said.
With Republicans divided aboutwhat constitutes more traditional membersand the tea party, which tends to toe conservative-libertarian lines, the Senate and majority leaders may have their work cut out for them if they want to challenge Obama on his own turf.
Richard Weitz, the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis, said the impacts of the election aren’t "easy to predict, because the Republicans are divided, and it is easy to see what they profess to be against – Obama and anything he’s doing – but in terms of where they want to go, it’s questionable.”
What might unite Congress, however, is opposition to a prospective deal between the P5+1 group of global powers and Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
"They’re going to attack it no matter what the terms are going to be. Whatever the terms are they’re going to say ‘it’s too soft, you made too many concessions, weak leadership. Republicans would have stood out for better terms,’” Weitz said.
Reza Marashi, the director of research at the National Iranian American Council, said that the Republican takeover is unlikely to completely derail Obama’s efforts, but it may "weaken America’s hand” at the negotiating table.
Noting that Tehran will now question Washington’s ability to follow through on key aspects of any deal, he said, "The White House will have to come up with creative ways to demonstrate to the Iranians that America will follow through at the end of the bargain.”
Iran has insisted on the removal of economic sanctions as an end result of any prospective deal.
Even prior to Republicans taking full control of Congress, there were rumblings that Obama may circumvent Congress in lifting sanctions. Such action may have been made more likely by Tuesday's results.
David Mack, a former State Department official whose career focused heavily on the Middle East, said that some members of Congress may attempt to prevent the president from lifting sanctions, but "once again, there will be divisions within the Republican Party, with significant and important Republicans wanting to go along with an agreement.”
While tensions may mount as a deadline on nuclear talks approaches at the end of the month, neither Obamanor Republicans are likely to see dramatic internal changes as the president closes out his final two years.
"Barack Obama is not going to become a new Barack Obama, and the Republicans are not going to become new more compromising and reasonable Republicans,” said Perry.
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