WASHINGTON -- When Republicans take the reins of the Senate in January, they'll bring a new round of international hawks into the upper chamber. And with the president laying out a foreign policy-heavy agenda in a Wednesday address, the leadership change could put some of Capitol Hill’s chief foreign policy voices in new, powerful positions to dictate international affairs.
The White House offensive against the Islamic State is unraveling at an alarming speed. A nuclear deal with Iran could be just weeks away. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is threatening the global health infrastructure. And a burgeoning Taliban is threatening the legacy of the war in Afghanistan, the nation's longest-running military conflict.
It's not clear whether Obama will decide to seek congressional approval at all in confronting this wide array of international issues, since he's been reluctant to do so as of late. But if and when the administration does decide to consult the legislature, it will find a Senate full of Republicans who are eager to back aggressive foreign policy strategies.
The dynamic foreign policy duo of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will wield new power on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee come January. At the same time, an influx of hawkish voices, particularly those of newly-elected Iraq War veterans Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), could shake up the foreign policy landscape right as the Obama administration is struggling to counter a slew of international crises.
McCain will take over the helm of the powerful Armed Services Committee, where he’ll become Capitol Hill’s leading voice on defense. His protégé, Graham, will also wield new power on the panel, where he’ll take the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Personnel.
The duo’s newly elevated status doesn’t necessarily mean they'll push a partisan national security agenda, though. Both McCain and Graham have demonstrated a willingness to reach across the aisle, and the White House has reportedly leaned heavily on both of them to rally congressional support for its strategy to combat the Islamic State.
But the two senators' hawkish tendencies have often made them a thorn in the side of the Obama administration, which is more cautious when it comes to international affairs. McCain and Graham have advocated fiercely for more aggressive tactics in a variety of foreign conflicts, including the festering crisis in Ukraine, nuclear negotiations with Iran and ongoing extremist movements in the Middle East. Their calls have mostly fallen on deaf ears, but will likely get louder once the two assume their new positions.
It’s uncertain whether lawmakers will be consulted as the administration attempts in the coming weeks to seal a nuclear deal with Iran. Despite earlier suggestions that the White House would circumvent Congress in negotiating the agreement, the President hinted Wednesday that he would consult lawmakers if the negotiating parties reached an amenable deal.
Similarly, the White House has for months orchestrated its fight against the Islamic State solely under executive authority. But the President signaled Wednesday that this would also change, saying he intends to seek authorization from Congress for the military engagement in the upcoming months.
The most interesting role for McCain and Graham, though, could come as the U.S. accelerates its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Independent observers have that warned a resurgent Taliban is bidding its time to take back power there after U.S. forces clear out at the end of next year. McCain and Graham have both warned that, in light of the deteriorating situation in Iraq -- from which they say the U.S. withdrew too quickly -- the nation should reconsider its imminent departure from Afghanistan.
In addition to McCain's and Graham's new positions, a more fascinating development may be the arrival of a number of new foreign policy wonks to the Senate. Both Cotton and Ernst, as military veterans, have sought to solidify their credibility on international issues. National security, which seldom inspires voter engagement, was a key issue in both challengers' 2014 campaigns, suggesting that concern over burgeoning Middle East crises have put international policy back on voters’ radars.
Cotton has already begun building his foreign policy portfolio, exhibiting a strong anti-Iran, pro-Israel rhetoric and voicing loyal support for an aggressive strategy to combat extremism in the Middle East.
“Iran remains our worst enemy and Israel our closest ally,” Cotton said in a press release just last week. “The Obama administration’s weak behavior will only embolden Iran to continue its headlong rush to nuclear weapons and terror campaigns against America and our allies, while destabilizing the region and further eroding our interests.”
Ernst, the first female veteran elected to the Senate, has begun cultivating similar positions, speaking on the importance of the U.S.-Israeli partnership and critiquing the notion of a nuclear-capable Iran.
It’s unclear where the chips will fall for Ernst and Cotton as far as committee assignments go. Given their military experience, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee or a joint venture with McCain and Graham on the Armed Services panel would no doubt be good fits. With seasoned hawks leading the charge and a expected pivot in the White House's near-term foreign policy agenda, the stage is set for both rookies to emerge as leading foreign policy voices in the GOP-controlled Senate.