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Republicans Should Signal Leadership, at Home and Abroad | Commentary

The 2014 midterm elections were a rejection of the policies of President Barack Obama. And the Republican takeover of the Senate is a repudiation of the gridlock in Congress symbolized by the bare-knuckles tactics of outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The new Republican Senate leadership should move swiftly to seize the high ground and signal it is ready to do the peoples’ business. Quick action on several international issues — the Keystone XL pipeline, trade promotion authority and long-delayed ambassadorial nominations — are bipartisan actions that Republicans should put on the table even before they take over in January.

Although opinion polls show voters favor Republican positions on the economy, foreign policy and security, the party’s brand needs burnishing. As Obama hints at a more confrontational tone that could undermine any hope of making Washington work, Republicans can rise above Obama’s blame game by working with Democrats on tangible initiatives to bolster America’s economy, global leadership and security. The feisty Reid may throw some haymakers on the way out the door, but Republicans can corner him by signaling their willingness to advance a constructive agenda.

For example, there is broad bipartisan support behind granting federal approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will help lay the foundation for an all-of-the above energy strategy that can jump-start the U.S. economy, keep fuel prices low and mitigate the impact of unstable or hostile nations. The measure passed the House by a veto-proof margin in 2012, but it died in the Senate because Reid would not allow a vote. The president has never had to justify his slow-walking this critical job-generating project, but a bipartisan vote in Congress could force his hand.

With Obama headed to a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in China next week, U.S. business is urging him to seek trade promotion authority immediately, so he can advance an auspicious Pacific trade deal that can then be presented to Congress for an up-or-down vote. The Tran-Pacific Partnership — comprised of 11 Asian countries and 40 percent of the world’s economy — would be a boon to American exporters and boost U.S. engagement on behalf of investors and intellectual property protections.

Another serious but soluble problem is the logjam of ambassadorial nominations that is the result of Reid’s decision 12 months ago to resort to the so-called nuclear option — to change Senate rules to push through judicial nominations by a simple majority. Republicans responded by exercising their right to insist on time-consuming debates before proceeding to votes, not just on judges but on any nomination. Although the leadership has compromised on key appointments, today more than 30 foreign affairs nominations are backed-up on the Senate’s executive calendar — about two-thirds of which are career foreign service officers.

Moving forward on such nominations will signal to the American people that Republicans intend to move beyond the Reid gridlock. As they consider putting the nuclear-option genie back in the bottle, Republicans should consent to clear the calendar of most pending nominations or to allow up-or-down votes on those that are particularly controversial. Although conventional wisdom is that career officers are preferable for overseas assignments, sophisticated and tough political appointees can be even more effective in shaping policy and delivering unambiguous messages in critical posts. By cooperating on these nominations, Republicans will be signaling to the rest of the world that they back robust diplomacy to advance our values and protect our security.

In the coming year, initiatives to confront the threat of Iran, Syria, and the Islamic State terror group will command strong bipartisan support. Moreover, a much more effective and rigorous Congressional oversight of foreign affairs and security policy is desperately needed to reassure the American people that Congress will support our allies and confront our foes.

Republicans emerged from the midterm elections with historic majority in both houses of Congress. However, they still face a constitutional impediment known as the president of the United States. Working with the president is not a capitulation or accommodation, it is governing. And the American electorate will come to a conclusion in the next two years whether Republicans can make the government work for the people again.

Roger F. Noriega served for more than 10 years on House and Senate staffs and held senior foreign policy posts in three Republican administrations. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and his firm, Vision Americas LLC, represents U.S. and foreign clients.

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