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Foreign Policy Gets Short Shrift in the Senate

Domestic Focus on Jobs Leaves Little Room for International Affairs

The Arab Spring is reshaping the Middle East, Israeli-Palestinian tensions are coming to a head and President Barack Obama just dispatched 100 troops to Uganda — but the Senate’s all-consuming focus on domestic economic affairs has left scarce room for foreign policy debates.

Inside Washington’s most deliberative body, Members have spent little to no floor time openly expressing opinions or airing grievances about the trajectory of America’s international presence, even as the world landscape changes significantly.

This spring the Senate failed to move legislation authorizing the administration’s military action in Libya; it was sidelined both by spending bills and by an inability to agree on what the measure should look like.

Since then, Senators have been frustrated with the administration’s communication — or lack thereof — with Congress about military decisions, as well as the chamber’s inability to respond powerfully enough to draw the White House’s attention.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who traveled to Libya on an official visit in late September, said Tuesday that Members have been “totally” frustrated with the level of information-sharing between the White House and Congress since the administration’s March decision to participate in NATO-led military operations in the embattled African nation.

Friday’s announcement that the White House was sending a small contingent of troops to Uganda to combat the militant Lord’s Resistance Army reopened old wounds.

“I think what they did makes perfect sense; they should just call us,” Graham said of U.S. engagement in Libya and Uganda. “Make us partners. There are plenty of people over here who want to work with the administration. You just don’t want to have a Friday night press release at midnight talking about having troops going into Uganda and get asked by your constituents Monday morning, ‘What’s that all about?’ and you don’t have a clue.

“The administration should reach out more,” the South Carolina Republican added. “[But] Congress should speak up more. … I think it would be good for us to talk about it.”

On Tuesday, in a rare shift away from talks on the budget or the economy, Republican Senators led by Armed Services ranking member John McCain (Ariz.) took to the floor to ramp up pressure on Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring up a long-stalled Department of Defense authorization bill.

The legislation has been delayed over controversial terrorist detainee provisions, but Reid emphasized on the floor that he is committed to taking up the reauthorization bill. Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said that guarantee has also been made to him personally, even as he and McCain work to resolve the outstanding issues.

“No one is saying that we’re not going to do the Defense authorization bill. We’re going to do that,” Reid said on the floor Tuesday. “But … because of being jammed, as I have tried to outline here, … we’re trying to find time to do lots of things.”

Finding time to squeeze in consideration of a major bill could be difficult. The Senate is currently considering a package of appropriations bills, and Reid has committed to moving one “jobs” bill a week over the next month.

Plus, Congress will have to approve another spending bill to keep the government funded in November, and if the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction produces a package, the full Congress will have to vote on it by Christmas.

Even rank-and-file Members suggest there’s little time to debate foreign policy issues on the floor and in front of the
C-SPAN cameras, especially as Obama continues to travel across the country stumping on a jobs-centric agenda.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he met with the Israeli ambassador last week and was tracking the Tuesday exchange between the Israeli government and Hamas of nearly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier held captive for the past five years.

Despite behind-the-scenes interest in the pressing international stories of the day, there’s unlikely to be a large outpouring of public comment from the Capitol.

“There’s activity going on … but at this point, I do think our focus is on jobs — the No. 1 issue in America today is jobs. It affects everything. It affects the ability of our economy to grow, for us to be able to continue to have the strength we need internationally,” Cardin said.

He also noted frustration with Congress’ inability to authorize the administration’s military choices, especially on Libya, because Congress should do so “as a matter of principle.”

Although some Members have expressed outward irritation — not with the administration’s policies themselves, but with its treatment of Congress in making them — others suggest that because the issues have been noncontroversial, there’s no reason for lawmakers to be concerned.

On Uganda, for example, Congress approved legislation that was signed into law in May 2010 directing the president to provide “support for multilateral efforts to eliminate the threat to civilians and regional stability posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army.”

And in the stalled Defense authorization bill, there is a provision “to provide logistic support, supplies and services, and intelligence support for forces … to mitigate and eliminate the threat posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army.”

“The size of the action, the fact that there’s a great deal of support for both and because of the restrictions — the narrow description of our role of being supportive — with all those put together, there’s going to be less issues raised on the floor” Levin said. “There’s probably less because there’s less opposition, which is the single word I would say about the actions or the events” in those two regions.

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