After weeks of political skirmishing, the heart of President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives will finally be on the line this week on Capitol Hill.
Obama has no more elections to worry about, but he does have a legacy he’s determined to burnish in the final two years of his administration. With key elements of the Affordable Care Act in danger of being struck down by the Supreme Court next month, and his executive orders on immigration caught up in a legal challenge as well, foreign policy may become his last shot at political redemption.
Ironically, Obama’s global footprint is in the hands of his domestic nemesis—the GOP.
The fate of two controversial bills – one on trade and the other on a deal to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon – will be largely in the hands of the Republican leaders in the House and Senate. The trade bill would give Obama fast-track authority to negotiate a massive new pact with 11 other countries from the Pacific Rim that Republicans favor but many Democrats oppose.
The other is a compromise measure that would allow the president to complete negotiations with Iran on a deal to sidetrack Tehran’s development of a nuclear bomb for at least another decade but give Congress the right to review and pass judgement on the final agreement. That measure won overwhelming approval in the Senate last week but now faces a conservative challenge in the House.
In both cases, Obama will need extraordinary intervention on the parts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in order to prevail.
“It doesn’t get much bigger than this,” William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said on Monday. “The Iranian nuclear deal is at the very heart of Obama’s diplomatic strategy in the Middle East and beyond, and the trade promotion authority is the key that could unlock the Trans-Pacific Partnership which is at the very center of the pivot to Asia that he wants to make as he decouples from the Middle East.”
“These two efforts taken together define the strategic heart of the Obama foreign policy,” he added. But neither initiative is a given in the complex world of trade and foreign policy:
Liberal Democrats including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are bent on foiling the trade legislation and, in the process, humiliating a Democratic president they never quite got a long with. Some of Warren’s attacks on the trade bill were so shrill and extreme that Obama said last week that the liberal icon was “absolutely wrong.”
Meanwhile, right wing Republicans in the House who don’t believe Iran can be trusted to shelve its development of a nuclear weapon in return for a lifting of economic sanctions against it will make a last ditch effort to block the congressional oversight bill on the floor this week.
The Senate last week passed the bill 98 to 1 despite the best efforts of freshmen Republicans Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida to load up the legislation with “poison pill” amendments that would have drawn a veto from Obama.
McConnell (R-KY) saved the day for Obama and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN), the chief author of the underlying legislation, by squelching the amendments by Cotton, an upstart who has grabbed a leading GOP role on foreign policy issues, and Rubio, an announced presidential candidate.
Their amendments would have required Iran to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and to totally scrap all vestiges of its nuclear research. Either amendment would have killed the legislation by drawing a veto from Obama or prompting Iran to walk out of the international talks.
Now it’s up to Boehner to save the bill in the House. He has strongly endorsed the bill that would give Congress up to 30 days to review any final agreement with Iran and vote on a resolution of approval or disapproval. However, a group of 30 conservative House Republicans has announced it will try to resurrect Cotton’s and Rubio’s amendment when the bill is brought to the floor this week.
The question is will Boehner show the same backbone as McConnell did in staring down conservative bomb throwers who want to block the bill at all cost.
In a similar vein, McConnell will have to pull Obama’s bacon out of the fire again if the fast-track trade bill is going anywhere. The wily Kentucky Republican wants to finish work on the bill by the end of the month and pave the way for potentially the biggest U.S. trade pact ever.
However, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) – allied with his party’s left wing – has raised numerous objections and is threatening to force votes on four amendments to address Democrats’ concerns that the trade agreement ultimately will cost U.S. jobs and encourage exploitation of labor overseas. Among their demands: a measure to discourage currency manipulation by other countries that would make their exports cheaper and in greater demand.
Fourteen Senate Democrats on Monday urged Obama to require stronger labor standards be implemented before the sweeping Asia-Pacific deal takes effect, according to The Hill. The senators, including Chuck Schumer of New York and Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, also warned U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Labor Secretary Tom Perez that waiting to improve standards until after the treaty is enacted could undermine enforcement of labor protections in Vietnam and other countries involved.
Republicans control 54 votes in the Senate, and that means McConnell will have to hold most of his members and attract more than six Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold he will need on Tuesday to break a Democratic filibuster and vote on the bill. According to The Wall Street Journal, McConnell’s biggest challenge will be persuading Republicans who don’t like the trade bill that they would be demonstrating party loyalty by standing with him.
Over in the House meanwhile, the more than two-dozen conservative Republicans opposed to the Iran nuclear legislation are preparing to offer the Cotton and Rubio amendments to the bill.
The move by the conservative House Freedom Caucus will put Boehner back in a now-familiar bind of having to either bow to the far right of his party or stand up to them for a bill he strongly supports. Boehner did just that in early March when he forced his party to abandon a fruitless effort try to use a homeland security bill to block Obama’s immigration reform executive orders.
The conservative Republicans insist they will not back down again. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), a Freedom Caucus member, told Politico that the Corker deal is an illusion that provides political cover—not oversight.
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