Election 2018: What Now?

Part II: The US Senate

Endy Zemenides, Executive Director

When it comes to American foreign policy, the Constitution of the United States gives Congress a great deal of power. Only Congress can declare war. Spending bills — including appropriations for the military, for diplomatic activities, and for foreign aid — have to emanate from Congress. The War Powers Act further checks the ability of the US President to commit the country to armed conflict without a declaration of war.

When it comes to Congress’ role in American foreign policy, the Senate is the more critical of the two Houses.

In addition to sharing the above responsibilities with the House of Representatives, the Senate has the additional Constitutional power of “advice and consent” on Presidential nominees and the sole power to approve treaties. Over the next year, we can expect the confirmation hearings of new US Ambassadors to FYROM, to Turkey, and to Greece. This makes developments in the US Senate particularly critical for Greece.

Beyond the work to be done in the next Congress, Senators typically play an outsized role in national politics. In the Obama Administration, the President, Vice President, both Secretaries of States, one Secretary of Defense had all served in the United States Senate together (and all served on either the Foreign Relations or Armed Services Committee). The late Senator McCain was as influential a voice on military affairs as any Secretary of Defense. If President Trump replaces Secretary of Defense Mattis, it is Senators like Tom Cotton and Lindsay Graham who are often mentioned as successors. And as 2020 approaches, a multitude of Democrat Senators — Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kirstin Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown — are considering a run for President.

The Republicans kept control of the Senate and slightly expanded their majority, but major changes are coming to the Senate nonetheless. The Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee — Bob Corker of Tennessee — is retiring. John McCain’s passing already led to a new Chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Another member of the Foreign Relations Committee — Jeff Flake — also retired.

What do all these changes mean for Greece?

CHAMPIONS STILL IN PLACE

I have previously written about the importance of Senator Bob Menendez’s reelection. He will retain his role as ranking member (i.e., the highest ranking Democrat) on the Foreign Relations Committee. This comes with significant powers, including the ability to determine the fate of nominees and influence foreign relations related legislation. The greater question is what kind of working relationship the presumed incoming Chairman of the Committee — Senator Jim Risch of Idaho — will have with Senator Menendez. Corker and Menendez worked well together, and both showed the willingness and ability to work independently of a President from their own party. Senator Risch does not have a reputation of being particularly active on foreign affairs and is often described as “a Trump loyalist who will be much more likely to defend the president.” This may remove an extra pressure point on Turkey if this key committee solely defers to the Administration — which since the release of Pastor Brunson seems to be returning to the quiet diplomacy of its predecessors.

Senator Chris Van Hollen strengthened the pro-Hellenic record he had established as a member of the House in his first two years in the US Senate. He successfully led the effort to increase military assistance to Greece and has laid out the clearest and strictest lines on restricting F35 transfers to Turkey. As a member of the State and Foreign Operation Subcommittee of the Senate’s Committee on Appropriations, Van Hollen’s leadership will become even more critical. The deepening of the strategic relationship between the US and Greece (and later with Cyprus), will almost certainly require new appropriations, and Van Hollen will be the leader on those initiatives.

HELP ON OTHER SIDE OF THE AISLE?

Since the retirement of Senator Olympia Snowe in 2012, no Republican Senator has emerged to consistently lead on issues of Hellenic concern. As Senator Mark Kirk started playing such a role, he lost his bid for re-election. The loss of Senator McCain, who had become a strident Erdogan critic and whose familiarity with Souda Bay and relationship with Ambassador Pyatt, robbed us of another potential leader on these issues. The Greek-American community, Athens and Cyprus could develop a Republican champion from among the following:

  • Senator Ron Johnson, Wisconsin: Senator Johnson chairs the European Affairs subcommittee, has been particularly active on the Balkans, and has visited Greece twice in the past two years (including as part of the US delegation to the Thessaloniki International Fair). He comes from a state with a significant Greek-American population.
  • Senator Lindsay Graham, South Carolina: During his trip to Washington in 2017, Prime Minister Tsipras had a productive meeting with Senator Graham. Thereafter, the Senator played a positive role on Greece’s F16 upgrade deal, on the increase in military educational training funds for Greece, and led a Senate delegation to Greece. His relationship with Harris Pastides — the President of the University of South Carolina — is a plus as is his friendship and close working relationship with Senator Menendez.
  • Senator Marco Rubio, Florida: Senator Rubio is becoming one of the leading Republican voices on foreign policy. He has not delved into Greek issues, but his focus on Israel and the Levant can easily make the Greece-Cyprus-Israel trilateral relationship tantalizing for him. China is also a significant issue for Senator Rubio, and China’s level of activity in southeast Europe and the Mediterranean can make him of a proponent of drawing Greece and Cyprus even closer to the US. Florida is home to a significant and historic Greek-American community, of Congressman Gus Bilirakis and of other pro-Hellenic Republicans (like fellow Cuban American Mario Diaz-Balart) who could help recruit Rubio into this role.
  • Senator Todd Young, Indiana: Although he is still in his first term, Senator Young has already demonstrated a strong interest in human rights while serving on the Foreign Relations Committee. His response to constituent concerns made as part of HALC’s #NoJetsForTurkey campaign was one of the best in the country. Representing a state with a strong Greek-American community, Young is also going to chair the National Republican Senate Committee — which should bring him into contact with Greek-American leaders around the country.

There are several opportunities to develop Senate allies on both sides of the aisle. The community needs to reach out to the Senators in their states, and the leaders of Greece and Cyprus must make a concerted effort to develop relationships with Senators and not merely meet with Administration officials.

Next week: Greek Americans elected around the country