Washington Watch: Senate Control - what's the difference?

The greatest problem for Israel could come in partisan budget battles inside the Beltway.

The US Capitol building in Washington. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The US Capitol building in Washington.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If Republicans win control of the Senate in next month’s election and solidify their majority in the House, as many pundits are predicting, it will have marginal impact on policies and programs affecting Israel, but the difference could be profound on the domestic agenda of the mainstream Jewish community.
Israel will continue to enjoy wall-to-wall bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Republicans, especially with their influential evangelical base and conservative Jewish megadonors, tend to be much more hawkish than Democrats. During this summer’s Gaza war lawmakers of both parties loudly declared their support for Israel with letters, resolutions, speeches and millions more dollars for Israel’s highly successful Iron Dome anti-missile system.
The greatest problem for Israel could come in partisan budget battles inside the Beltway. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who is in line to become majority leader if he wins reelection, has hinted he will play brinkmanship with the White House, threatening to shut down the government to force the administration to meet his demands on key issues.
In that event, foreign aid and everything else will be on the block. A strong isolationist streak and tea party influence in the GOP could lead to cuts in foreign aid. At $3.1 billion, Israel is by far the largest recipient, and most popular. It might take a hit in the event of across-the-board cuts but the account in great danger could be Egypt. Its abysmal human rights record in the wake of a military coup and less-than-free elections have won few friends in Washington.
But the same can’t be said of Jerusalem, where the two former foes enjoy good working relations. In the past when Congress attempted to cut Egypt’s $2.3 billion aid package, the first to come its defense were Israeli diplomats. In Israel’s view, that money is the cement that bonds (or buys) the peace treaty and that is a top priority for Israeli governments of all stripes.
The investment proved itself once again this summer. The new Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hates Hamas almost as much as Israel does. Egypt played an important role in crafting a ceasefire, as both Jerusalem and Cairo told Washington to stay out of their talks. Both thought Secretary of State John Kerry was too anxious to work with Hamas’ allies instead of them.
The other high priority foreign policy issue for friends of Israel is Iran. The next Congress is likely to intensify pressure on Tehran more to the liking of the Netanyahu government than the Obama administration.
Earlier this year the Senate reluctantly shelved House-passed sanctions in response to White House pleas to give nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic a chance to succeed. The original target date was extended to November 24 and there is little sign of progress, so look for the negotiators to kick the proverbial can farther down the road.
The outgoing 113th Congress is expected to hold a post-election lame duck session starting November 12, even though the previous week’s election results may not be complete and Senate control uncertain.
The main topic will be extending government spending and Democrats, especially if they lose their majority, will try to push through a number of diplomatic, judicial and administrative nominations while they control the Senate floor.
Unless a breakthrough with Iran appears imminent, there may be a move to revive the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions legislation. Backers will call it an incentive for the Vienna talks but mostly they’ll be previewing their 2015 strategy if the Iranians look like they’re stalling to buy time to build their bomb.
Pressing hardest for tightening the screws on Tehran will be Israeli PM Netanyahu, who can be expected to reject any agreement the Iranians sign. The Congress, particularly but not solely the Republicans, will likely to be more responsive to his demands than Obama’s plea for restraint.
Leading from behind will be Bibi’s ally, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has made this its top issue for more than 20 years.
In a Republican Senate two uber-hawks are likely to be particularly influential. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is vying for chairmanship of the Armed Service Committee (now held by retiring Carl Levin of Michigan) and his wing man, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) could chair the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.
Neither has seen a military conflict he didn’t want Washington to jump into, and if they’re in the majority they’ll have the power to do more than cajole and criticize. Look for them to lead the campaign for more forceful engagement against Islamic State (ISIS). Right now there may be no national appetite for American boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, but that could change if ISIS moves into Baghdad and attacks the U.S. Embassy there.
Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations appear to be dead for the next two years. Obama appears to have lost interest as his efforts have been repeatedly rebuffed by both sides, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders show more interest in playing the blame game than the peace game.
With a presidential election campaign starting in earnest the day after the polls close on next month’s by-election, politicians will be more interested in pandering than peace as the situation 6,000 miles away continues to deteriorate.
Next week’s Washington Watch will look at the potential impact of the election on domestic issues followed most closely by the mainstream American Jewish community.