What Democrats' Senate majority means for the Mideast

Incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez opposed the Iran nuclear deal and has been a proponent of the US recognizing the Armenian genocide.

al-monitor President-elect Joe Biden (C) rallies with Democratic candidates for the US Senate Jon Ossoff (L) and the Rev. Raphael Warnock (R) the day before their runoff election in the parking lot of Center Parc Stadium on Jan. 4, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Jan 20, 2021

The Democratic Party now has a narrow majority in the US Senate following Joe Biden’s inauguration as president Wednesday. The shift from a Republican-controlled chamber will have effects on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and US policy in the Middle East.

There are 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats and two Independents (who caucus with Democrats).  Democrats possess a one-vote majority when taking into account the role of Vice President Kamala Harris, who also serves the role of 'president of the Senate.' This also allows Democrats the majority to claim the chairmanship of committees.  

With the shift, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez is expected to replace Idaho Republican Jim Risch as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a Republican Senate aide told Al-Monitor on Wednesday. Menendez, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, was previously chairman from 2013 to 2015.

Menendez has an extensive record on Middle East issues. In October, he was instrumental in convincing the Library of Congress to use the term “Armenian Genocide” in reference to the killings of Armenians in the early 20th century in Turkey. In September, he told Trump administration officials that the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates would undermine the US commitment to Israel’s regional military superiority.

Menendez notably broke with members of his party in 2015 when he voted against the Iran nuclear deal. Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told the Senate this week that the new administration will consider returning to the agreement if Iran complies with the pact's stipulations.

A rising number of progressives in Congress often adopt more pro-Palestine positions. The advocacy director for one Palestine-focused organization said the new Senate should stop aid to Israel.

“The Democratic-led Senate should enforce US law, including the Foreign Assistance Act and Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits aiding human rights abusers,” Raed Jarrar told Al-Monitor.

Israeli officials have welcomed Biden, a long time friend of Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And while a few Senators are willing to consider a slightly more conditional approach to Israel, they are in the minority.

Republicans could try to thwart any attempt by Biden to return to the Iran nuclear deal. Considering that they have 50 seats and some Democrats voted against the deal the first time around, they could be successful.

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy has also vowed to continue fighting the weapons sales to the UAE that the Trump administration made last year. Such weapons transfers can take years to complete.

The Democrats also have a majority in the House of Representatives. House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, introduced on Jan. 15 legislation opposing arms sales to Saudi Arabia in one of his first acts as the panel's leader. The previous chairman, Eliot Engel, lost his Democratic primary election last year.

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