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Senate Democrats Look to Make Their Mark on Foreign Policy

With Obama no longer in the White House, minority party is stepping up

Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardinsays there’s no shortage of foreign policy leaders among Senate Democrats. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardinsays there’s no shortage of foreign policy leaders among Senate Democrats. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Democrats are not shying away from criticizing the Trump administration when it comes to foreign policy.

It’s a new and potentially adversarial role: being in the minority while explosive headlines from conflicts abroad dominate the news.

For the past eight years, Senate Democrats looked to President Barack Obama as their leader on foreign policy. But with President Donald Trump in the White House, a military strike in Syria and escalating tensions with North Korea, Democrats are taking a bolder stance.

Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin said the committee now has “an even more important oversight role” over the country’s foreign policy. 

“I can be a little bit more independent because the president’s not in my party, and I think there’s need for more independent review at times,” the Maryland lawmaker said.

Cardin has been the top Democrat on the panel for only two years, though he is no stranger to foreign affairs, particularly on human rights issues. He joined the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, when he first came to Washington as a congressman 30 years ago, and eventually chaired the group.

Another Democrat on Foreign Relations said members of his caucus need to step up on foreign affairs.

“I think Democrats in Congress largely outsourced foreign policy to the Obama administration in the last eight years,” said Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy.

“There is a need for Democrats in Congress to find our voice on foreign policy,” he said. “That need is accentuated by the reckless and provocative nature of Trump’s foreign policy in the last three months.”

Drawing battle lines 

Though Senate Democrats say bipartisanship on foreign policy matters is important, they have drawn some partisan lines in the early months of the Trump presidency.

“The bottom line is, I think that we are being observed by foreign governments in terms of what direction policy is going in,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served under President Bill Clinton. “I think when there is a bipartisan foreign policy, we are stronger.”

“But it doesn’t mean that whoever is the majority party simply tells the minority party what to do,” Albright said. 

While Republicans have condemned alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, Democrats have been more assertive, said John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

“They are now much tougher in standing up to the Kremlin than they have been in the past, and tougher than the Republicans, which is historically quite unusual,” said Herbst, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush.

Democrats have also opposed such Trump proposals as his temporary ban on refugees and cuts to foreign aid. Cardin and others said Democrats need to stand strong on issues such as climate change, human rights, and support for international institutions.

“America’s strength is not its military and its economy alone,” Cardin said. “America’s strength is in its ideals.”

Emerging voices

After serving in the House for 20 years, Cardin was elected to the Senate in 2006 and requested to be placed on the Foreign Relations Committee.

“Cardin again always had a very strong worldview,” Herbst said. “He might have been a little bit more cautious about expressing that worldview when Obama was in the White House, but he still expressed it.”

Cardin said there is no shortage of foreign affairs leaders in his caucus.

“We don’t have the same ability to put a spotlight on issues when we’re in the minority,” Cardin said about Democrats’ inability to initiate hearings or launch investigations. “That, I think, may have [some] who believe that we need more help. But I think … we have a lot of experts.”

Democrats lost leading voices in their caucus including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and former Secretary of State John Kerry, who left the Senate to serve in the Obama administration, Murphy said at a recent Council on Foreign Relations event.

“We need to rebuild a bench of foreign policy leaders in the Senate,” Murphy said.

The Connecticut Democrat is one of those emerging voices on the Foreign Relations Committee, especially over support for foreign aid. He recently unveiled his own budget proposal, to double the foreign affairs budget over five years.

Murphy said Democrats “too often conceded defeat” over how much should be spent on development and diplomacy, and they need to be willing to argue that those investments are necessary for global stability.

Democrats on the committee are all leaders in their own right, Cardin said. For example, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who studied and worked in Africa before coming to Congress, is respected on both sides of the aisle as an authority on the continent. Coons traveled to Uganda with Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker during the April recess.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, last year’s vice presidential nominee, has been a leading advocate for congressional approval of military actions abroad. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire has led efforts to protect special immigrant visas for people who worked as military translators.

Cardin also pointed to Democrats who are not on the committee, such as Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, as foreign affairs experts. The Illinois Democrat traveled to Eastern European countries and NATO allies in February to reassure leaders of American support.

While being in the minority means Democrats do not have as much power to highlight their issues, Cardin said the Foreign Relations panel has worked in a bipartisan manner, with Corker trying to accommodate Democrats’ priorities.

But “these are not a substitute for having the gavel,” Cardin added.

Murphy suggested Democrats take to the media and share their support for the State Department on television and back in their home states.

Albright, who also worked in the Senate and in congressional relations in the Carter administration, said Democrats should use committee hearings to raise questions, and take advantage of visits to the White House to express their views.

She said senators must keep up pressure on the administration, especially when it comes to confirming lower-level executive posts.

“I think that this moment in time does require a sustained voice in saying, ‘Who actually is carrying on the national security policy?’” Albright said.

That’s a question Democrats say they are ready to keep asking.

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