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Shift to GOP control in House signals shift in foreign policy matters

By Charley Keyes, Laurie Ure and Pam Benson, CNN
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U.S. election shakeup on foreign affairs
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There could be changes in defense policy and military spending
  • Clinton says politics won't get in the way of protecting U.S. interests
  • Foreign policy and intelligence matters may also shift with new leadership
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Washington (CNN) -- Foreign affairs did not play a major role in the election debate this year, but the shift in power in the House means a shift in focus in defense, foreign affairs and intelligence matters.

Republicans taking the helm of key committees could reopen debate on Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and interrogations, and put pressure on other foreign policy efforts by the administration.

In the wake of the change, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that when it comes to foreign policy, political tensions get put aside to protect U.S. interests.

"What I have always found is that when it comes to foreign policy, it is important to remember that politics stops at the water's edge. And you can build coalitions, and you can make your case, and you can find allies on issues that are in America's interest and in the furtherance of our security and our values," Clinton told reporters traveling with her in New Guinea.

But a look at Republican priorities could prove Clinton more hopeful than accurate.

Defense

A Republican takeover, by definition, means change for defense policy and military spending. But insiders predict tight budgets and traditional bipartisanship will smooth out the bumps.

In the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-California, is poised to take over the gavel from Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Missouri, who lost his bid for re-election.

"There will be different priorities, and there will be hearings," Mackenzie Eaglen, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Tuesday. "There will be a greater focus on Afghanistan, on detainee policy, the future of Guantanamo, and the intentions of growing the Navy and modernizing the Air Force."

Eaglen, who's worked at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, says it's important to look at the tradition of the House Armed Services Committee. "The House and Senate Armed Services Committees are truly nonpartisan, in public and behind the scenes," Eaglen told CNN in a telephone interview.

With the Republicans being now able to set the agenda, and hold hearings, there will be new scrutiny of the Obama administration's Afghanistan policy.

"The majority of Republicans are supportive of the president's policy on Afghanistan, but they are very concerned about what they see as arbitrary troop levels and his schedule of the start of withdrawal next summer," Eaglen said.

McKeon would not comment, but in a statement provided to CNN before the election, he pledged continuity.

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"The Armed Services Committee has a strong bipartisan tradition of providing our warfighters and their families with the resources and support they need -- and that commitment will continue regardless of the (election) outcome," he said in a statement released by his office.

The key factor for both the Republican majority and the Democrats will be tight budgets, said Dr. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

"When you run out of money, it is amazing the impact that has on ideology," Thompson told CNN.

The large turnover in the House, Thompson said, also means that there are a variety of differing ideas represented and many of them will cancel each other out, especially as Congress grapples with how to both cut spending and extend tax cuts.

But Thompson noted that incoming Chairman McKeon, based on the huge amounts of defense contractors and military bases in and around his district, may be more in favor than his Republican colleagues in growing the defense budget.

McKeon signaled he is not inclined to hold down the military budget in a statement released Wednesday -- a stance that may put him on a collision course with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others calling for new cost-cutting and efficiencies.

"Our citizens have spoken, and they want a defense budget that is sufficient to address the challenges of today and the threats of tomorrow," McKeon said. "One percent real growth in the base defense budget over the next five years is a net reduction for modernization efforts which are critical to protecting our nation's homeland."

But adding more to the budget could be a tough sell in this economy.

"It's hard to see how Republicans can find much more money for the military," Thompson said, adding that lawmakers in both parties will be forced to look to the Pentagon for possible savings down the road.

"So no matter how much they want to preserve a strong defense posture, it will be difficult to avoid eyeing the defense budget as a source of savings for the Treasury, just like Democrats would," Thompson wrote.

But there will be differences on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bars gays from serving openly in the military. Republicans are still smarting after Democrats tried to push through a legislative repeal of the policy before the Pentagon had completed its review of attitudes in the ranks and the ban's impact on unit cohesion and readiness. McKeon was quick to signal Republican opposition to any rapid change in military policy toward homosexuals serving openly.

"Republicans on both sides of the Capitol are committed to passing a National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 that is not weighed down by the current majority's social agenda items," McKeon said in Wednesday's statement.

There has been and will remain agreement on the committee on the major issues, said Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Arkansas, who is retiring.

He says it remains to be seen how the committee reorganizes itself and changes staff and subcommittees under a Republican majority.

"There was pretty much agreement in the Congress with the approach we've been taking and the president has been taking," Snyder told CNN in a telephone interview. "There were not big conflicts."

Snyder predicted that the Republicans on the committee will stick to what he calls the Ronald Reagan playbook: strong defense, small government, less taxes.

"The new session may bring Democrats and Republicans together in favor of a good, strong, effective defense," Snyder said.

On the sidelines, for now, is the U.S. military. At least until the political smoke clears.

A Pentagon spokesman casually dispensed with questions Wednesday morning about whether election results would translate into changes on the ground in Afghanistan.

"No immediate impact," said Col. Dave Lapan. "Obviously it remains to be seen how the new Congress will view operations and may ask for information or hearings and briefings, but it is just too soon to tell."

"Right now -- no impact, we continue our operations. So the results of the election last night haven't changed that," he added.

Foreign Relations

Control of the purse strings gives congressional committees a lot of sway when it comes to the president's foreign agenda.

The Republican gains in the midterm elections will likely impact a number of foreign policy initiatives, as current House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, is expected to take over the committee chairmanship from California Democrat Howard Berman.

Ros-Lehtinen is largely regarded by congressional observers as conservative on foreign policy, outspoken, and no stranger to putting tough political pressure on President Barack Obama. She advocates greater fiscal scrutiny over Obama's international affairs budget, which she has said in the past is "ambitious in its magnitude."

Alex Cruz, Ros-Lehtinen's communications director, told CNN that the congresswoman is not the committee's chair unless voted as such, and that Ros-Lehtinen not commenting on the matter.

A Cuban-born naturalized American citizen, she takes a hard line on Cuba. Unlike Berman, who has long advocated for reform, she has pushed for continued sanctions and does not favor repeal of the travel ban.

Last week, Ros-Lehtinen praised the European Union's decision to reject proposed overtures to the Cuban regime.

"The European Union must not allow itself to become a pawn in the regime's political games," the congresswoman said in a statement.

She has also been critical of the Obama administration's policy on Iran.

"No nation poses a greater threat to the U.S. than Iran, where (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad and the thugs in Tehran are on the cusp of obtaining nuclear weapons," she said in a video posted on her congressional website. "But the U.S. administration has not addressed this critical threat head-on. They had hoped against hope that engagement and concessions would do the trick. They wasted more than 18 months talking, while the centrifuges kept spinning."

Berman has supported Obama's efforts to engage Iran, but wants clear timelines and benchmarks, and "unambiguous consequences" if Iran fails to meet the criteria established within the allotted time-frame.

Republican control of the House likely means strong support for Israel when it comes to the Middle East. Ros-Lehtinen's district has a large Jewish constituency, and like Berman, she is a strong supporter of Israel. She states on the House Foreign Affairs Committee's website that the "cherished alliance between the U.S. and Israel is a bastion of security for both nations."

Obama caused a stir earlier this year when he strongly criticized Israel's decision to approve the construction of hundreds of housing units in West Bank settlements. He later sounded a more friendly tone after being pressed by several members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

"Extremists target Israeli citizens and seek Israel's destruction. The (United Nations) isolates and demonizes the Jewish state, and Israel is pressured time and time again to make concessions to Palestinian leaders who refuse even to recognize its right to exist," Ros-Lehtinen said at a summit last week organized by AIPAC, an Israeli lobbying group.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday that he does not expect the election results to have an impact on U.S. efforts in the Middle East peace process, and that peace is of "significant national interest."

"Democratic and Republican administrations, supported by Congress under Democratic or Republican leadership, have all supported our pursuit for comprehensive Middle East peace," Crowley told reporters at a press briefing.

Meanwhile, the economic problems in the United States will put pressure on U.S. generosity abroad, said Michael Mandelbaum, director of the Foreign Policy Program at the School of Advanced International Studies.

"When that happens, Americans are going to feel poorer, and they're going to be less generous in funding foreign policy," Mandelbaum said.

Whether the contraction comes in the coming Congress or later is unknown, he said.

The new Republican House will likely push for change in a few areas, such as nuclear arms reduction with Russia, climate change, and international trade, said Reginald Dale, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

However, he said, with so little focus in the election on foreign policy, it's difficult to draw strong conclusions about specific foreign policy initiatives.

The weakened Democratic presence in the Senate could hurt some key Obama foreign policy initiatives, Dale said.

If the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, or "New START," is not ratified by the current Senate's lame-duck session, "it will be very much more difficult, if not impossible, to ratify it in the next Senate," Dale said, given the Republican gains in that body of Congress.

"A lot of (Republican senators) are much less enthusiastic, if not hostile, toward the treaty," Dale said.

Obama has characterized the pact as "an important milestone for nuclear security and non-proliferation" and for U.S-Russia relations.

Having more Republicans on Capitol Hill might also foster a more positive attitude toward ratifying existing bilateral trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, which have been stalled throughout the first two years as Democrats and the Obama administration faced opposition from labor unions, Dale said.

Major diplomatic issues with China are not entirely dependent on what happens in Congress, Dale said, but more congressional representatives will be more inclined to accuse China of currency manipulation as the Asian nation keeps its currency low.

Republicans will likely stand together with the administration on "firing a shot across the bow of North Korea, and indirectly, China" when displaying a show of force such as the recent naval exercises with South Korea, Dale said.

But overall, the election outcome does not help Obama's image overseas, Dale said. The president does not look at all like the leader he was seen as when he came to power two years ago, "when there was this great hope around the world that he could achieve all sorts of miraculous progress in foreign affairs."

That notion had already disappeared, he said, but the midterm results are "another nail in its coffin."

Intelligence

A Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee most likely means battles over priorities set early in the Obama administration.

Within two days of taking office, Obama announced his plans to close the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention center, move most of the suspected terrorists to the United States for trials in civilian courts and severely restrict the CIA's interrogation and detention program. Those decisions did not sit well with Republicans.

While it is still unclear who will be the next chair of the intelligence committee since the current ranking Republican is retiring from Congress, the two likely candidates have been firmly opposed to many of the administration's terrorism-related policies.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the outspoken ranking Republican on the committee who never lost an opportunity to slam those policies, is leaving Congress. His replacement is up to Rep. John Boehner, who's expected to become the next House speaker. Current and former intelligence officials believe Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry of Texas and Rep. Michael Rogers from Michigan are the two front-runners.

One former intelligence official believes Rogers might have the upper hand, because he is believed to have a better relationship with Boehner.

Thornberry has questioned the decision to limit CIA interrogation techniques to those in the Army Field Manual.

"Terrorists know what those methods are and know they have little to worry about," he has said.

Rogers doesn't mince his words either when it comes to challenging the president. He doesn't think the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention facility should be closed. Rogers wants suspected terrorists to be considered enemy combatants, who would not be protected by Miranda rights and would be put on trial before military tribunals.

Rogers has accused the administration of treating terrorism as "lawfare" instead of warfare.

"We do not need Eliot Ness on the battlefield; what we need is Gen. George S. Patton," said the lawmaker.

A former House Intelligence staff director, who also worked at the CIA, says ranting about Gitmo and detention policies is not productive because those issues are now on the back burner.

"A lot of the things that President Obama was adamant about while campaigning have dropped off the charts," said Mark Lowenthal, adding that, "Gitmo isn't closing anytime soon and they haven't figured out how to do trials yet."

"The Obama administration has stepped back from a lot of their earlier positions on intelligence," Lowenthal said in an interview.

He maintains that the critical issues for the new chairman will be passing an intelligence authorization bill each year, something that has been done only once in the past six years.

"That's their main function and I think they have lost sight of that over the past several years," said the former staff director.

Lowenthal also believes the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee will have a lot of independence.

"The choice of the chairman in this case will matter, because the speaker will be much busier on the economy, what he wants to do about health care, things like that."

No matter what course Thornberry or Rogers would pursue, nothing concrete will happen unless their Senate counterparts are on the same page. Unlike its House counterpart, the Senate Intelligence Committee tends to be far more bipartisan.

However, ranking Republican Kit Bond, who had a very good working relationship with committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is retiring from the Senate. There's no front-runner to fill his shoes and Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell has not indicated who he intends to appoint to the position.

That could ultimately impact how unified the committee remains. But as Lowenthal points out, the Democrats had trouble reaching consensus on intelligence legislation even when they controlled both committees.

"There is a chance here to be on a more cooperative basis. When both sides were held by Democrats, it wasn't working," said Lowenthal.