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U.S.: Foreign Policy Seems Unchanged By Party Shift In Senate

  • Andrew Tully

Control of the U.S. Senate shifts this week from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. This will give Democrats control of the Senate's agenda, which they lost in the 1994 general elections. While such a shift will change the way politicians will conduct business in Washington, political observers say they doubt it will have much of an impact on American foreign policy. RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 5 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The imminent shift in which party controls the U.S. Senate probably will have a minimal effect on foreign policy. That is the view of political observers in Washington interviewed by RFE/RL.

On 24 May, Senator James Jeffords, one of two senators from the northeastern state of Vermont, announced that he was leaving the Republican Party to become an independent -- formally aligned with no political party. He said he felt uncomfortable in a party that had become increasingly conservative on issues like abortion, gun ownership, and government programs for the needy.

Since 1995, the Republicans have controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives. And when George W. Bush -- also a Republican -- was inaugurated this year, Americans expected Congress and the White House to successfully pursue a Republican political agenda for at least the immediate future.

After last November's elections, the Republicans and rival Democrats each had 50 members in the Senate. Because the president of the Senate -- who casts tie-breaking votes -- is Vice President Dick Cheney, and he is a Republican, the Republicans had the slimmest of majorities in the Senate.

With Jeffords' departure, the Democrats will have a 50-49 edge. Today or tomorrow [5 or 6 June], they will formally become the majority party in the Senate.

Analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say this decision by just one man will profoundly affect American politics. First, they say, Bush will have to work harder -- and probably make more compromises -- to achieve his goals. And the Democrats -- not the Republicans -- will control the Senate's agenda, deciding which legislation will be considered, and when.

But foreign policy is a different issue altogether. Leo Ribuffo, a professor of history and politics at George Washington University in Washington, notes that there is what he calls a "general consensus" on foreign policy in Congress.

Since World War I, according to Ribuffo, U.S. presidents have held similar views about America's role in world political and economic affairs, and generally have had the support of Congress, regardless of party affiliation, during peacetime.

"Within those general parameters, there's a lot of room for disagreement in times of major crises. We don't have a major crisis now."

In fact, Ribuffo says, it is likely that Bush's political opponents in the Congress would support the president if he decided that it was necessary to take military action almost anywhere in the world.

Forrest Maltzman, an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, agrees. He says he expects the political shift in the Senate to have a far greater impact on domestic policy than foreign affairs.

"Foreign policy, unlike domestic policy, is still largely controlled by the executive branch [the president and his cabinet]. I want to be clear on that."

In fact, Maltzman says, the House of Representatives is more likely than the Senate to leave its imprint on American foreign policy, because it is in the House that all spending legislation must originate. And, he stresses, the Republicans still control the House.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, an independent policy research organization in Washington. For the most part, he says, the shift in the Senate's leadership will mean a change in style rather than policy. Carpenter says that perhaps the only areas in which a change in leadership may make a difference is in international peacekeeping, as in Kosovo or Bosnia.

Carpenter points to the division within the Bush administration on this issue. One faction, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, wants to move slowly and deliberately in withdrawing U.S. troops from the Balkans. The other, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, promotes a quicker withdrawal.

The analyst told RFE/RL that Senator Joseph Biden of the state of Delaware -- who is expected to be the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- is more likely to side with those favoring a longer American peacekeeping mission. On the other hand, Biden's predecessor -- Jesse Helms of North Carolina -- looks with disfavor on long military involvement overseas.

"I think Helms would have been supporting those people in the Bush administration who wanted U.S. troops out of both Bosnia and Kosovo fairly soon."

Ribuffo -- Maltzman's colleague at George Washington University -- notes that the political shift in the Senate does not make Bush's job much more difficult than it was before. He says no one expected that Bush's agenda would be utterly unchallenged even when his party controlled both houses of Congress.

"It was always clear that there would have to be negotiations on specific legislation [proposed by Bush], and that's still going to be the case, except now the Democrats have a few more cards in their hand."

Even after Jeffords' departure, there remain several Republicans in the Senate who share his political views. Ribuffo says Bush was prepared to deal with them all along, and will continue to deal with them to pursue his own political goals.