On November 8, American voters will go to the polls in what are termed “mid-term” congressional elections. The seats of all the members of the House of Representatives and of a third of senators are at stake. While US presidents traditionally play a predominant role in the making of foreign policy, Congress is also an essential actor. The results of the November elections could therefore have major impacts on President Biden’s foreign policy initiatives in the last two years of his term.
Democrats in Congress face real headwinds this year, and the president’s majority in both the House and Senate is clearly at risk. Some 74% of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, the worst numbers in years, and approval ratings for Biden are at Trumpian lows. Inflation, and in particular high gas prices, rising crime, and concerns about the economy are top of mind for US voters. Although current overall generic polling puts republicans only slightly ahead of democrats – 44.3% to 42.5% – the electoral map doesn’t favor democrats in many parts of the country. The Senate, where the democrats’ majority is already razor-thin, is at risk, and many analysts believe the republicans have a strong chance of winning the House.
The stakes are high. Congress’s most potent tool is the power of the purse. Without congressional appropriations, there is no federal spending on arms for Ukraine, COVID vaccinations in the developing world, or a beefed-up US military presence in the South China Sea. Congress, of course, also has the upper hand on any foreign policy initiatives that might require legislation, for example new types of sanctions on Russian President Putin and his government and military. The Senate must agree to most senior Biden Administration personnel appointments and must give its agreement to formal treaty arrangements. Chairmanship of key committees, especially the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), give the majority party an influential bully pulpit.
Assuming the republicans manage to take one or both houses of Congress, what are the prospects for coherent, effective foreign policy for the rest of Biden’s mandate? In short, a republican Congress will make things difficult for Biden, but there are areas of possible bipartisan collaboration. The prospects for such collaboration, however, will likely dim as presidential elections in 2024 approach.
There is some good news for the President, at least in the short term. Viewpoints on the most urgent national security matter facing the United States – the war in Ukraine and Russian aggression more globally – have generally been consistent across party lines in the months since the latest Russian invasion of Ukraine. Biden’s approach has been simple: strongly support Ukraine diplomatically, use sanctions and boycotts to make life as difficult as possible for Putin, give Ukraine enough weapons to keep it in the fight, and avoid provoking the Russians into World War III. There has been carping from congressional republicans, but few have called the overall strategy into question. Unfortunately for Biden, there is no guarantee the republicans will continue to support, tacitly, this position. “America First,” far right republicans opposed to an interventionist foreign policy generally or republican presidential candidates seeking to undermine Biden on issues like inflation resulting from the war may become increasingly vocal as the United States nears presidential elections in November of 2024. As an example of the dangers Biden faces in the new Congress, only ten House republicans voted recently for a bill to facilitate military assistance to Ukraine; a republican majority might be enough to sink such legislation in the future. Biden will have to work hard to convince mainstream republican members of Congress, and the American people, that continued support for Ukraine is worth the costs.
Republican support for NATO is another potential bright spot, although that support is increasingly soft. The Biden Administration clearly sees the Transatlantic Alliance as a key bulwark against Russian expansionism in Ukraine and beyond, and a major objective for Biden even before Putin’s move into Ukraine was revitalization of America’s alliance structures. Donald Trump was tepid, to say the least, about NATO when he was president, but many old school members of the GOP remain committed to the organization and its objectives. In April, for example, most House republicans voted for a resolution in favor of NATO (although notably a third did not). Again, there are strains here as the Trump wing of the party reasserts itself in the lead-up to ’22 and ’24 elections. Republican Senator Rand Paul, for example, suggested in a SFRC hearing that eastward NATO expansion could explain Russian aggression. This is hardly a traditional American position. In any event, Biden will need continued republican support.
While there is likely to be differences on specific policy formulations, Biden and congressional republicans share deep concern about China. This includes China’s geo-strategic moves in the South China Sea and beyond, “Belt and Road” attempts to forge a Chinese-led global trading and investment system, the country’s protectionist economic policies, and China’s increasingly authoritarian bent at home. According to the Pew Research Center, a large majority of Americans – 89% in fact – consider the People’s Republic a competitor or an enemy rather than a partner. The sense that something needs to be done about China is clearly bipartisan. What, exactly, that might be is less clear. Generally speaking, republicans are perceived to be “tougher” on the PRC than democrats. For now, the Biden Administration sees Russia as “destabilizing” and China as “assertive,” not quite as dangerous in the immediate but a much bigger problem long term. There is certainly overlap between republicans and democrats, and there are possibilities for bipartisan approaches on China.
In other areas, the Biden Administration’s room for maneuver in the international space will be constricted ab initio should the republicans win a majority in either or both houses.
The most notable example is climate change. When Biden took office, he had ambitious plans for major energy transformation at home and reinvigorated American leadership on this existential issue abroad. After months of negotiation, Biden’s domestic climate change plan appears all but dead, at least that substantial part of it that required legislation. In fact, it didn’t even require a republican majority in either house to kill it. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, whose state is heavily dependent on coal mining, announced in mid-July that he would not support the bill. Manchin is a democrat, and, with a 50-50 split in the Senate, all it takes is one defection. Should the majority shift to the republicans, groundbreaking climate change legislation is almost unthinkable. A conservative majority in the Supreme Court also recently handed down a judgment limiting the US Government’s ability to force power producers to move to green sources of energy, which further complicates Biden’s path forward on climate. In international discussions on the issue, Biden will have little to bring to the table should republicans control Congress.
If the republicans win in November, Biden should be thankful for any collaboration he can get on issues where there is still any consensus, like Ukraine or China. As presidential elections in 2024 near, republicans in Congress will be less and less interested in governing in conjunction with a democratic president and more and more interested in undermining his administration to set the stage for a GOP presidential victory. A key objective for congressional republicans will be making the Biden Administration look weak and ineffective, and passing bipartisan legislation in support of the President’s agenda is unlikely to figure prominently in the republican playbook. The only exceptions will be those policies that have strong public approval or that continue to enjoy some legacy support by traditionalist republicans, such as NATO. Should Trump, or someone similarly disruptive, win the republican nomination in 2024, most congressional republicans will fall in line behind the candidate’s policy positions, no matter how extreme. That could cost Biden congressional support for even his most important foreign policy objectives.