America Awaits a Lame-Duck Congress
Now that the election is over and the Republicans have gained control of the US Senate, the period of the “Lame-duck” Congress is upon us. In politics, a lame duck refers to politicians still in power for the remainder of the term, but who have been defeated in the election. As it stands, the Democratic controlled Senate is lame-duck because at the beginning of January, the Democrats lose control of the Senate to the Republicans.
In this case, the lame-duck session that will continue into December is the last chance the Democrats have to legislatively act – although they still have to get it through a Republican House of Representatives. And, although the Democrats still have Obama in the White House, some issues like the budget must be acted upon by Congress, not Obama. In addition, several of the issues will impact the Middle East like Syrian funding of the rebels, the Keystone pipeline, and congressional approval of any deal made by Obama with Iran on nuclear proliferation.
The political chemistry surrounding the lame-duck session is complex. First, there is the outgoing Democratic Senate majority that was able to approve Obama’s nominations to cabinet, judgeships, and ambassadorships. Obviously, a Republican Senate will be much more critical of Obama’s nominations. As a result, there will still be a push to clear several nominations, even though more senior nominations may have to languish until January and the Republicans takeover.
The Democratic Senate also meant Republican legislation coming out of the House could be stopped at the Senate instead of forcing Obama to veto any legislation. It also forced Republicans to negotiate with the Senate Democrats in order to pass a budget to fund the government.
While the Democrats have a reason to hurry, the Republicans are more interested in delaying budgeting and legislation. Why, they reason, should they hurry to pass bills in November and December, while Democrats control the Senate, when they can wait and pass legislation that is more amenable to Republicans in 2015?
Meanwhile, Obama is already facing a hostile Congress that will become more difficult to work with once the Senate becomes Republican. This is fueling his desire to act unilaterally and bypass Congress with executive orders. One example of this is his executive action on immigration this week.
But taking unilateral action without congressional approval has risks. The federal government runs out of money on December 11th and unless Congress approves a continuing resolution, the government will have to shut down non-critical offices.
By taking executive action on immigration, Obama is challenging Congress to counter his move. Congress has the authority to prevent him from granting amnesty to illegal immigrants by preventing the government from spending any money to give them documents, but the problem is doing it in such a way that Obama is hemmed in and can’t cause a government shutdown that he will blame the Republican for.
One advantage for the Republicans is that all budget legislation must originate out of the Republican House instead of the Senate, which gives the House the edge in writing the budget legislation.
With a Democratic Senate, the options for the Republican House are more limited. If they pass a long term continuing resolution without any clause preventing the expenditure of money in processing the illegal immigrants, Obama is free to issue papers until October 2015.
If the House passes a long term continuing resolution with a clause preventing amnesty, the Democratic Senate could block the bill, let the government shut down, and try to blame the Republicans for passing unreasonable legislation. Or Reid could add an amendment that cuts the anti-amnesty clause out.
The other option, and one that is the likely outcome is to pass a short term continuing resolution that will not address amnesty,, but will allow the government to operate until early next year. Then a Republican Congress can craft a continuing resolution that contains the non-amnesty clause that forces Obama either to sign it or veto it and force a government closure.
It appears, however, that the Republicans are leery of forcing a government closure, so they have another option for next year – passing departmental budgets. In this, Congress would pass separate budgets for each department that Obama would sign. However, the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill would contain a clause that would prevent use of any of the money to process illegal aliens or give them amnesty. This leaves Obama with the hard choice of signing the bill and stopping the amnesty or vetoing it and forcing the closure of DHS – something that would hardly inconvenience the majority of Americans.
Given the history of the budgeting process, expect a short term continuing resolution coming out of the Congress in December, followed by more congressional battles on government funding in early 2015.
Although the funding issue remains, the lame-duck session has already tackled a couple of issues – the Keystone pipeline and NSA spying.
The revelation of massive NSA spying by Snowden galvanized many in Congress – many who were even Obama’s allies. In a rare piece of bipartisanship, outgoing Judiciary chair Democratic Senator Pat Leahy has spent the last year working on a plan to reform laws controlling the NSA and had reached agreement with Republican James Sensenbrenner in the House on a joint bill. The act would have severely restricted the collection of phone data.
However, the Senate successfully filibustered the bill this week and it is unlikely to come up again before the end of the year.
However, the issue will be renewed in 2015 as parts of the Patriot Act expire in June. And, what may happen has implications in the 2016 presidential race. Although many Republican senators, including incoming Senate Majority Leader McConnell, are opposed to limiting NSA authority, Republican aspirant Rand Paul is a NSA critic and wants even stronger NSA restrictions. However, Ted Cruz, a Republican Senator from Texas and potential rival of Paul favors letting the NSA retain more authority.
This could provide an interesting split in the Republican Party as the conservative Republicans will favor Cruz’s position, while libertarian Republicans will support Paul. This may allow someone like Jeb Bush, who is not supported by either the libertarians or conservatives, to win the nomination.
Although the NSA bill is focused on 2016 politics, the Keystone legislation that would allow Canadian oil to flow more readily into the US was focused on immediate politics and the fate of Democratic Senator Landrieu, who is behind in her race to retain her Senate seat against Republican Bill Cassidy. Construction of Keystone has broad support in Louisiana, an oil producing state and Landrieu had maintained that her position on the Senate Energy committee gave her more power to help oil producers in her state.
Despite all of her pressure, her Democratic colleagues were un-swayed and when the vote came to stop debate and vote, she came up one vote short – an indication that most Democratic senators had concluded that she would lose her runoff race in December anyway.
Syria and the Continuing Resolution
The funding bill will also have to address funding of Syrian Rebels. Obama asked Congress recently for another $5.6 billion to fight against ISIS. The new appropriation will help fund the 1,500 additional troops the Pentagon plans to deploy to Iraq. Increasing the Pentagon’s $58 billion overseas contingency operations request – the account used to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other hot spots – is expected to get broad support on Capitol Hill and pass easily. If Congress decides to go with the continuing resolution, they will fold the money into that legislation.
That, however, would only resolve the funding issue. There is still the issue of the American military actions against ISIS. Congress has the constitutional authority to declare war and many in Congress want Obama to go to Congress for authority to fight ISIS. In the last few weeks, Obama has indicated he may be willing to update the legal justifications for carrying out a war against ISIS.
The temporary authorization to act against ISIS was included in the last continuing resolution and must be renewed by December 11th. It is likely to be included in any temporary funding legislation.
This issue is likely to be debated in the new Congress in January. Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John McCain of Arizona, who are expected to lead key committees in the Senate, have both said they favor a new, expanded war authorization law. That additional authority may either be in a stand alone bill or, more likely, folded into the defense budget.
There is also the question of additional commitments of US troops in the region, which Obama was asked about during his recent trip to Asia. “Yes, there are circumstances in which [Dempsey] could envision the deployment of U.S. troops. That’s true everywhere, by the way,” Obama said Sunday in Australia. “That’s his job, is to think about various contingencies. And, yes, there are always circumstances in which the United States might need to deploy U.S. ground troops.”
Obama did admit that there was one definite reason to move troops into the region – if ISIS gained control of a nuclear bomb. “If we discovered that [ISIS] had gotten possession of a nuclear weapon, and we had to run an operation to get it out of their hands, then, yes,” Obama told reporters at the news conference. “I would order it.”
Nuclear Negotiations with Iran
Although supporting the Syrian rebels will likely find its way into the continuing resolution, there is likely to be more trouble in regards to any nuclear deal Obama makes with Iran.
The Senate is warning the Obama administration that it is poised to veto a final nuclear deal with the Iranians and impose harsher sanctions on Tehran, according to a letter sent late Wednesday to Obama. Nearly half of the Senate has signed onto a letter promising to reject a “weak and dangerous deal” with Iran as final negotiations in Vienna approach their Nov. 24 deadline. Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk authored the letter.
The senators warn that the Obama administration is close to inking a deal that will permit Iran to continue the most controversial aspects of its nuclear program and enable Tehran to build a nuclear weapon in the near future, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon and signed by all 43 Republican senators who backed the Mendendez-Kirk sanctions legislation killed earlier this year by the White House.
The senators lashed out at Obama for completely ignoring congressional efforts to provide oversight of the deal. “Your negotiators appear to have disregarded clear expressions from the Senate emphasizing the need for a multi-decade agreements requiring Iran to fully suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities, to dismantle its illicit nuclear infrastructure, and completely disclose its past work on nuclear weaponization,” the senators wrote to Obama. “We see no indication your negotiators are pressing Iran to abandon efforts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach American soil,” the senators warn.
Although the Constitution makes Obama the sole authority to deal with foreign nations, the Congress must provide the funding that will implement the agreement.
By relying on a confidential Treasury Department study, Obama has concluded that he can suspend most sanctions against Iran without congressional approval. Reportedly, that would be enough for Iran to sign a deal.
However, the Congress can severely restrict any agreement by failing to provide funding for any actions that the US has agreed to undertake. They can also punish the State Department by cutting their budget, especially in regards to opening an embassy in Iran or expanding operations there.
Assessing a Deal or Non-deal with Iran
The Critical Issue of Iran’s Progress in Weapons Research, Development, and Production Capability
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 20, 2014
It now seems unlikely that the P5+1 countries of the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany can reach a comprehensive agreement with Iran by the end of November. A final agreement remains a possibility, but it seems far more likely that if an agreement is not reached, the negotiations will be extended rather than abandoned all together. The question then arises as to how to judge the outcome of this set of negotiations, be it an actual agreement, an extension, or the collapse of the negotiations. So far, most analyses of the negotiations have focused on the key features of Iran’s various enrichment efforts and its ability to acquire fissile material. These include: The number of centrifuges, The development of more advanced centrifuges, The level of Uranium enrichment and the size of Iran’s stockpiles, The potential use of the new reactor at Arak to produce Plutonium, How soon Iran could use any of these to get enough material to produce a nuclear device, The extent to which any agreement dealing with all of these issues is enforceable, How long an agreement will be in force, and The incentives to Iran for reaching an agreement, especially the extent to which UN, US, and EU sanctions will be lifted, and the timing of such action.
ISIS, Israel, and nukes: Iran faces crises
By J. Matthew McInnis
American Enterprise Institute
November 19, 2014
Better policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran begins with a better understanding of Tehran’s decision making. Analysts, commentators, and policymakers are overwhelmed by the apparent complexity of Tehran’s political system, believing it to be opaque and often the source of irrational decisions. Because of these misperceptions about Tehran’s intentions, the United States has been too often shocked by Iran’s actions.
A Deal With Two Devils
By Lawrence J. Haas
American Foreign Policy Council
November 18, 2014
U.S. News & World Report
Nothing better showcases Washington’s confusion over foreign policy than the idea that – as part of a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal – Iran would ship much or all of its enriched uranium to Russia, and Russia would then process it for Iranian civilian usage. Were the U.S.-led “P5+1” negotiators (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) to reach a deal with Iran with this provision, the United States would subjugate its national security and that of its allies to two U.S. adversaries, both of which are undermining U.S. interests around the world. In addition, Washington would further legitimize Tehran and Moscow as good-faith actors that adhere to global norms and can be valuable partners with the United States, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
The Next President’s Mideast Mess
By Robert Satloff
November 16, 2014
Even God, it seems, is tired of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — and the never-ending standoff between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. When a third intifada threatened to erupt recently following Israel’s temporary closure of Muslim prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in response to stone-throwing against Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below, Palestinian leaders called for a “day of rage,” and Israel dispatched more than 1,000 riot police to prepare for the worst…It will likely take an even more dramatic brand of divine intervention to prevent a slew of worsening Mideast problems — renewed Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Islamic terrorism, Iranian nukes and so on — from landing squarely on the desk of the next U.S. president, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or anyone else. All indications are that President Obama is going to try to make a difference in his last two years, especially in securing what he reportedly believes could be a transformative nuclear agreement with Iran. But the overwhelming odds are that most of these problems will still be unresolved by the next inauguration — and that the 45th president’s tenure will be as engulfed by the Middle East as Obama’s has been.
How Iran Sanctions Failed
By Tzvi Kahn
Foreign Policy Initiative
November 17, 2014
How to explain America’s failure, after 20 years of efforts, to impose genuinely crippling sanctions on Iran? Start with the penchant of the executive branch—from Presidents Clinton to Obama—for excluding Congress from the process. Last month, the New York Times reported that President Obama planned to bypass Congress on any final deal with Iran, directly violating a pledge by Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year that the administration would “of course” consult with lawmakers about the future of sanctions. “We’d be obligated to,” he said, “under the law.” At the same time, the administration maintains that it feels perfectly copacetic with its current slate of sanctions anyway—no need to rush for more. Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew said shortly after the implementation of the interim agreement that the United States—thanks to “President Obama’s leadership, congressional actions, [and] American diplomacy”—had “put in place a historic sanctions regime, and Iran now finds itself under the greatest economic and financial pressure any country has ever experienced.”
Press Note: Prospects for Negotiations with Iran and Nuclear Diplomacy
By Elizabeth Rosenberg, Ilan Goldenberg
Center for a New American Security
November 19, 2014
As negotiators head towards the November 24 deadline for the Iran nuclear negotiations in Vienna, we should expect neither a full comprehensive agreement nor a complete breakdown. Instead, the most likely scenarios involve interim agreements that could range from a significant step forward involving some concessions on all sides, a partial agreement on some elements, or simply an extension of the status quo. While the best outcome for advancing nuclear security and future diplomacy with Iran would clearly be a major breakthrough in the negotiations, a continuation of talks and a perpetuation of the status quo would be far superior to a total breakdown. The durability of any agreement or the durability of continued nuclear diplomacy will depend on how key constituencies including the U.S. Congress, Iranian hardliners, Israeli and Saudi skeptics, and the countries negotiating with Iran (the P5+1) behave in the aftermath of the deadline.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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