White House Faces Big Foreign Policy Battles With GOP-Controlled Senate in 2015

By Patrick Goodenough | January 1, 2015 | 11:00pm EST

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is in line to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(CNSNews.com) – From Iran to Ukraine to climate change, 2015 promises to present President Obama with new challenges as he seeks to pursue key foreign policy objectives in his last two years without being blocked by skeptical and frustrated Republicans – and some Democrats – on Capitol Hill.

With GOP control now extending to the U.S. Senate, the administration will have to contend with some of its harshest critics assuming the helm of important committees.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in line to be the new Armed Services Committee chairman, has clashed repeatedly with the White House over its handling of the Syrian civil war, specifically what he views as an overcautious approach towards arming non-Islamist rebels, and the perception that the U.S. expects those rebels it does support to prioritize the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over the campaign against the Assad regime.

McCain is also a leading opponent of the administration’s attempted “reset” with Moscow and – along with other senior Republicans including incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) – has criticized the administration for not imposing more and tougher sanctions than it has on President Vladimir Putin over his Ukraine intervention, and for not providing weapons to Ukraine.

On December 18 Obama signed into law the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which was co-sponsored by Corker and the senator he replaces as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who will be the ranking member on the committee this year.

The legislation authorizes the president to impose sanctions on Russia’s arms exporting agency and natural gas provider, and to provide Ukraine with weapons to use against the Russian-backed separatists in the east.

But in a signing statement, Obama indicated that he “does not intend to impose sanctions under this law” and that he would only use the new authorities it provides “if circumstances warranted.”

Last month McCain signaled his intention to use upcoming hearings for Obama’s defense secretary nominee, Ashton Carter, to highlight what he called the president’s “feckless foreign policy, and its grave consequences for the safety and security of our nation.”

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., is a leading critic of the administration's climate change policies. (AP Photo)

Rough climate ahead

Another incoming committee chairman whose arrival will not be welcomed by the White House or the State Department is Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is expected to return to the helm of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

For an administration that has made climate change a top priority, to have one of the Senate’s leading climate change skeptics chair that particular committee in a year when it hopes to push for a major binding global climate agreement could hardly be more exasperating.

Secretary of State John Kerry, at the forefront of the administration’s climate push, has not hidden his impatience with those who challenge manmade global warming theories.

Ahead of the U.N. climate gathering in Paris, France next November that is meant to deliver the new global agreement, the administration sought to lend impetus by offering $3 billion to a global fund designed to help poor countries cope with climate change – almost one third of the total amount pledged to date by the entire international community.

Inhofe quickly indicated his intention to oppose the move, promising to work “ with my colleagues to reset the misguided priorities of Washington in the past six years.”

Also questioning the $3 billion pledge was Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another arch-critic of the administration’s foreign policy. Graham is in line to chair the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the State Department and foreign operations.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., left, will be succeeded this year as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., right. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Iran in the crosshairs

One of the earliest clashes likely this year between the GOP-controlled Senate and administration will be over Iran’s nuclear programs.

Talks between Iran and the P5+1 negotiating group failed to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement by a Nov. 24 deadline, and were extended by another seven months.

That development breathed new life into a Senate initiative – stalled earlier after the administration promised to veto it if passed – that would hold the threat of tougher sanctions over Iran’s head as an incentive to reach a deal deemed acceptable by the West.

The legislation, co-authored by Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), enjoys substantial bipartisan support and there have been indications it will be taken up again early in the 114th Congress.

Another Iran-related measure, introduced by Corker last July, seeks to prevent the administration from implementing any deal between Iran and P5+1 – the U.S., France, China, Britain, Russia and Germany – without Congress’ approval.

Yet another piece of foreign policy legislation that could advance under the GOP-controlled Senate targets Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite terrorist group in Lebanon.

The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act passed in the U.S. House by 404 votes to zero last July, but stalled in the Senate Banking Committee. The senator expected to chair the committee this year, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), was one of 57 co-sponsors of the Senate version of the legislation, so the measure is likely to move ahead.

How the administration would respond to a bill that would place pressure on foreign governments to act against Hezbollah is unclear. The U.S. Treasury Department did announce new sanctions targeting a Hezbollah procurement network last summer, but the administration may worry that legislation aimed at one of Iran’s closest allies could prove disruptive to the nuclear talks.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., slammed Obama's Cuba policy shift. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Cuba troubles

Late in 2014 Obama announced dramatic changes to Washington’s four decade-old policy towards communist Cuba, drawing praise in some quarters but also sharp criticism from some prominent senators, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) – a possible 2016 presidential contender – Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Menendez.

The White House will need Senate support to advance some – though not all – of its new Cuba policy, including repeal of legislation on the trade embargo, and confirmation of an ambassador to Havana.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will play a pivotal role on those issues, includes leading critics of the Castro regime, including Rubio and Menendez.

Graham, set to head the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on State and foreign operations, has also vowed to “do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba.”

The administration may face further difficulties on Capitol Hill as it seeks to prod the Israelis and Palestinians to a negotiated settlement, and resists calls by some to get tough with allies Turkey and Qatar over their support for Hamas.

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