Midterms revamp Middle East policymaking in Congress

Article Summary
Tuesday’s elections will re-order the committees in charge of foreign policy.

Democrats took control of the House during Tuesday’s elections, positioning them to exert greater oversight over President Donald Trump’s Middle East policies. While both parties have become increasingly critical of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, a Democratic House paves the way for a vote on ending US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen. Furthermore, Republicans can no longer block Democrats’ efforts to subpoena Trump, his family and his administration over scandals that could implicate Israel and US allies in the Gulf. Meanwhile, Israel has to contend with three Democratic newcomers in the House who have uncharacteristically pro-Palestinian views. 

Conversely, the GOP held the Senate. And with several Republican Trump critics leaving the upper chamber, the three key foreign policy committees will be under the control of ardent Trump supporters.

Here’s how the elections will affect the panels most relevant to the Middle East.

House Foreign Affairs Committee: Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., will likely use his new position as incoming chairman to push for greater oversight into Trump’s Middle East policies, particularly his relationship with the Saudis. Republicans had blocked Engel’s previous effort this year to compel the State Department to deliver all correspondence related to Trump’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which largely focused on Iran’s presence in Syria. With Democrats in the majority, they can no longer shield the Trump administration from such requests. And although Engel opposed the Iran nuclear deal, he also opposed Trump’s withdrawal and recently ribbed the administration for granting exemptions to certain Iranian oil importers.

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Meanwhile, current Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., is retiring, leaving a leadership void for the position of top Republican on the committee, which Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., seeks to fill. One of Smith’s competitors for the position, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a staunch defender of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, lost his re-election bid Tuesday.

House Armed Services Committee: Incoming chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., is keenly interested in reining in what he views as excessive US military intervention abroad. Smith led the charge among Democratic leaders in backing a resolution that would force the United States to stop midair refueling support for the Saudi coalition’s war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. House Democrats have also expressed concern over the Trump administration’s use of US troops to counter Iranian forces in Syria.

House Appropriations (State/Foreign Operations): The full committee’s incoming chairwoman, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., will likely press the Trump administration on its decision to cut assistance for Syria and the Palestinians. Despite her pro-Israel credentials, Lowey opposed the Trump administration’s decision to cut some $200 million in economic aid to the West Bank and Gaza earlier this year. In addition to the Democratic flip, Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., retired.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, is likely to replace Bob Corker, R-Tenn., as head of the Foreign Relations Committee following Corker’s retirement. Risch, an Iran hard-liner, has been less vocal in pushing back against Trump’s Middle East policies than Corker, who has become increasingly outspoken against Saudi Arabia in recent months. The panel is also losing moderate Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona to retirement. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., will stay on as the committee’s top Democrat after winning re-election Tuesday. Menendez has placed a hold on precision-guided munitions sales to Saudi Arabia on account of the Yemen war.

Senate Armed Services Committee: Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., an Iran hawk supportive of Trump’s Middle East policies, will remain in control of the Armed Services Committee following the death of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., earlier this year. But top Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island has taken an increasingly tough line on Saudi Arabia in recent weeks following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Reed has gone so far as to call for an arms sales ban to Riyadh.

Senate Appropriations (State/Foreign Operations): The elections yielded no changes on this committee. Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and top Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, will likely continue working across the aisle to pressure Egypt over its human rights record and Morocco over its occupation of the Western Sahara.

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Found in: US elections

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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