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Congress Flexes Foreign-Policy Muscle With Rebukes of Trump

Daniel Flatley

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump will face a more assertive Congress on foreign policy as he fights off impeachment and seeks re-election, with lawmakers pushing legislation at odds with his priorities and personal style on the global stage.

This will be on full display Wednesday when the Republican-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee considers sanctions on Turkey and Russia, both countries that Trump has tried to court despite Congress’s wariness. The panel has also been the driving force behind two recent laws to support Hong Kong protesters, which Trump reluctantly signed despite Chinese threats of retaliation.

In recent months, the Senate’s GOP majority has been more likely to agree with House Democrats on foreign policy than with the Trump administration. Even the president’s closest allies in Congress criticized him for withdrawing American troops from Syria, inviting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House and selling arms to Saudi Arabia.

Lawmakers last week called for the suspension of a training program for foreign fighters after a Saudi air force officer shot and killed three U.S. service-members at Naval base in Pensacola, Florida. Trump, on the other hand, tweeted that he had received “sincere condolences” from Saudi Arabia’s king.

“It’s time that Congress reestablish its Article I prerogatives by not just asking probing questions but also by resuming legislative activity on a once very visible and consequential committee,” said Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana, describing the Foreign Relations panel and the article of the Constitution that lays out Congress’s powers. “Any administration should have to show their work.”

Foreign policy decisions are also the foundation of the impeachment investigation that is hurtling through the House of Representatives. Democrats are building the case that Trump subverted official U.S. diplomacy in Ukraine for his personal political benefit.

The main impeachment allegation is that the president withheld nearly $400 million in security aid for Ukraine and a White House meeting in exchange for newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announcing politically motivated investigations.

Weeks before this touched off the impeachment inquiry, Republicans lobbied the White House to find out why the congressionally approved security assistance had been delayed. GOP Senators including Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly and privately pressed administration officials to release the aid they said was critical to fend off Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.

Not Always in Lockstep

Even as most Republicans oppose impeachment, many of them are willing to part ways with Trump on other issues of foreign policy.

”We’re not always in lockstep with everything that comes out of the White House and when we’re not, we have a responsibility to voice that,” said Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

There is also a broader effort to check Trump’s power. Young, a former Marine, has sponsored several proposals to wrest control of foreign policy away from the executive branch. His bill with New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, would require the administration to consult Congress on troop levels in Afghanistan and any final agreement with the Taliban.

“It’s incredibly important that Congress and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in particular maintains a high level of oversight over the longest war in American history,” Young said of Afghanistan, where Trump recently said he was pursuing a new peace deal.

This push for oversight took on greater urgency after Trump in October abruptly announced the withdrawal from northern Syria shortly after a telephone conversation with Erdogan. Republicans were outraged when Turkey invaded territory controlled by the Kurds, a U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State.

McConnell, one of Trump’s most imperturbable allies, warned that pulling out U.S. troops from the region would leave the Kurds vulnerable to attack and risk giving a foothold to jihadist fighters.

“We hope the damage in Syria can be undone,” McConnell said at the time. “But perhaps even more importantly, we absolutely must take steps so the same mistakes are not repeated in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Another Republican who usually supports Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz has been furiously campaigning for sanctions to halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline he says will increase Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence in Europe to the detriment of the U.S.

If the gas pipeline, from Russia to Germany, is completed, “it will be the fault of the members of this administration who sat on their rear ends,” Cruz said last week. “You have an overwhelming bipartisan mandate from Congress to stop this pipeline.”

Cruz fought to include the sanctions in the final version of the defense spending bill expected to pass before the end of the year.

Another provision in the National Defense Authorization Act would require the Secretary of Defense to certify that a reduction of U.S. forces in South Korea is in the national security interest. The White House said in a statement Tuesday that Trump supports the NDAA.

Republicans have also expressed frustration with their colleagues who blocked a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, which Turkey opposes. Cruz said he has heard “no good reason for the administration to object” to the measure.

Turkey Sanctions

The Turkey sanctions bill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week would sanction the country’s leaders, financial institutions and military that aided the invasion of northern Syria. In a remarkable display of bipartisan support, the House passed its version 430-16 in October.

Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he expects robust support for the Turkey sanctions bill when it goes to the Senate floor. Both chambers will need to pass the same version before sending it to Trump to sign into law.

“The House bill came over definitely veto-proof and we’ll likely do something that the House will also agree with,” Kaine said. “That’s a bipartisan understanding.”

Reaching a veto-proof majority represents even stronger backing for bills opposing Trump’s foreign policy initiatives than legislation earlier this year to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen and ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Those easily passed both chambers, but lacked the votes to override Trump’s vetoes.

Four of Trump’s six vetoes have been on foreign policy measures. But now stronger vote margins -- near unanimous for two bills supporting the Hong Kong protesters -- make it harder for Trump to go against the will of Congress.

“The president, at first, he was a little reluctant to sign it but then he did sign the Hong Kong bill and it was a big victory,” McCaul said.

This will be an important consideration for Trump as the House moves forward on impeachment and the process goes to the Senate to decide whether he should be removed from office. Democrats in the House plan to unveil two articles of impeachment on Tuesday, according to people familiar with the matter.

It’s extremely unlikely that enough Republicans in the Senate would turn on Trump to reach the two-thirds majority necessary to remove him from office.

Yet that won’t stop them from working with Democrats to rein in his impulsive -- and in some cases they would say inadvisable -- actions involving international relations.

“The margins have been going up because we’ve been working together,” said Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. When it comes to foreign policy, he said, “we almost have a supermajority.”

(Updates to add White House statement on NDAA in the 19th paragraph. An earlier version corrected the month of House vote on Turkey sanctions in the 21st paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Flatley in Washington at dflatley1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Anna Edgerton, John Harney

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