Senate Shift Might Soften the US Stance Abroad

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

May 29, 2001

By deciding to leave the Republican Party and register as an independent, Senator James Jeffords of Vermont has handed the Senate to the democratic opponents of president George W. Bush. The impact of this shift on US foreign policy should not be overstated: it will be less far-reaching than on domestic issues. Still, it might well soften the stance of an administration largely seen in Europe and elsewhere as prone to assertive unilateralism, overconfidence, and even arrogance.

Actually, it’s not because they will have a one-vote majority in floor votes that Democrats will benefit from Jeffords’ move. These votes are not frequent in the US Senate, and it might prove difficult for Tom Daschle, the new majority leader, to line up his troops. Rather, the new influence gained by democrats instead stems from five new cards in their deck.

First, they, and not the White House, will control the Senate legislative schedule. They will not be able to impose their own agenda on the House of Representatives or the president, but they will have the option of blocking, delaying or substantially altering George W. Bush’s agenda, forcing him to bargain and compromise. Second, the committee chairmanships will be turned over to democrats. For the friends of multilateralism, it should come as good news that Jesse Helms will step down as chairman of the foreign relations committee after six years of playing hardball against cooperative diplomacy and the United Nations in the name of American sovereignty. Third, the democrats now have the power to confirm or dismiss presidential appointees, including ambassadors. Most of the top jobs have been confirmed, but, according to the Presidential Appointee Initiative of the Brookings Institution, there are still 436 functions out of 491 pending, including 40 out 48 for the State Department and 38 out of 46 for the Pentagon as of May 24.

Fourth, the Democrats now have the power of the purse?or, rather, a decisive half of it. This means not only the possibility to orient public policies through funding, but also a critical weapon for bargaining with the administration. Last but not least, democrats now have a prominent platform from which they can criticize the Bush administration. The takeover of the Senate provides them with the bully pulpit they lacked. They now have a greater access to the media, the option of passing non-binding resolution expressing their discontent?a powerful signal in foreign policy?and the ability to frame the debates for public opinion.

One should not overstate, however, the democrats’ new clout in foreign policy. This is still where the president’s power is the strongest, especially in times of crisis, and Congress doesn’t have a say in most of the diplomatic decisions. After all, for example, if George W. Bush decides to withdraw unilaterally from the ABM treaty, no Senator will be able to stop him. Moreover, the type of hardball played by Jesse Helms is not an option for Joseph Biden: he can’t threaten to block treaties or cut funds to international organizations, because the administration wouldn’t care much and that’s precisely what he’s opposed to.

Still, there are different ways in which the democratic Senate could soften Bush’s international stance and induce more cooperative behaviour. Siding with Colin Powell’s State Department against Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon on issues like North Korea, China, Iraq or European defense might be one. Powell and the State bureaucracy are much more cooperation-oriented than their counterparts in the Pentagon. Echoing the voice and worries of America’s allies, as well as the real American public opinion, which favors the UN and cooperative diplomacy, might be another.

As far as as trade is concerned, Bush will probably be denied the fast-track authority by the Senate, and this will force him to find to negotiate more and be less assertive. But it is probably on security issues that the democratic Senate will have the greatest impact, because it holds the purse. It will be able to dampen Rumsfeld’s most radical defense reforms, including weapons in space and global missile defense, and will probably frustrate the president’s wish to implement a stopgap antimissile system by 2004, a unilateral move that could antagonize many coutries for no real gain.

There may be one last way in which Jeffords’ switch could soften the US stance. After all, as suggested by James Lindsay, the author of Congress and the Politics of U.S. Foreign Policy, what we have here is a devastating backlash from an ally who was taken for granted and often bullied by the Senate republican leadership and the White House itself. James Jeffords looked weak. But the overconfident White House overlooked the senator’s options and failed to acknowledge how important allies were for its own strategy. Isn’t that precisely the lesson it should bear in mind in the international arena, especially with Europe?