By Bob Cusack and Pete Kasperowicz - 10/25/11 09:00 AM EDT
Hillary Clinton’s status as one of the country’s most popular public figures could take a hit over the next several months.
Clinton’s approval ratings hover close to 70 percent and are far higher than those of Republican White House hopefuls and President Obama.
Her popularity has led to chatter in the nation’s capital that she could run for president again, or even replace Vice President Biden as President Obama’s running mate.
The former senator will not stay on at the State Department beyond Obama’s first term, triggering a flurry of speculation as to what she will do next.
But first she must deal with a series of challenges that puts her at odds with lawmakers in both parties.
Clinton finds herself in the middle of a domestic issue with repercussions for the environment and energy. The State Department later this year must decide whether to approve or scuttle the controversial Keystone XL pipeline carrying oil-sands-based crude from Canada to Texas.
Meanwhile, Clinton is at the forefront of a fight between the administration and Congress over how the U.S. should best handle friends and foes in a rapidly changing Middle East, where new governments have emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring and as the U.S. transitions forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Keystone decision is perhaps the most politically perilous issue in Clinton’s portfolio.
Environmentalists and Democratic heavyweights in Congress have urged Clinton to deny the project a permit, but State will feel pressure to allow the pipeline to go forward given the effects it could have on the U.S. economy. Unions say the project will create jobs, and advocates also argue it would reduce U.S. reliance on oil from the Middle East.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) earlier this month indicated to Clinton he had “serious concern” with the proposed TransCanada initiative, while House Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman (Calif.) told The Washington Post: “I’ve always felt uncomfortable that the State Department is heading this process.”
Most of Clinton’s policy skirmishes are on more familiar ground for a secretary of State.
She is battling Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) over conditions attached to $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt.
Leahy, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the Department of State, foreign operations and related programs, is tying the aid to Egypt enacting democratic reforms. He has backing from panel members on both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
Clinton, working with officials in Egypt’s new government, has made the case against conditionality, saying “we don’t want to do anything that in any way draws into question our relationship or our support.”
Clinton is also taking on Republicans in the GOP-led House.
Clinton recently repeated her warning to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) that she would recommend a veto of the lawmaker’s U.N. reform bill.
The measure, which has cleared Ros-Lehtinen’s committee along party lines, would withhold half of U.S. funding until the U.N. shifts to a voluntary funding scheme for most of its programs.
Clinton has made several arguments against the legislation, including that it might hurt U.S. efforts to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another Ros-Lehtinen bill that would tighten Iran sanctions has not been attacked or embraced by the Obama administration.
Congress and the administration worked closely together last year to pass the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions and Divestment Act, and might do so again.
Still, the origin of the 2010 law was a growing frustration in Congress about the lack of progress State was making in negotiations to get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
And while Obama ultimately signed the bill, he did so only after working to delay passage of the bill until a U.N. resolution against Iran was approved.
Ros-Lehtinen’s committee was originally scheduled to mark up the new Iran sanctions bill this week. But the markup was postponed because Clinton will testify before the committee on U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan on Thursday.
Clinton’s appearance is likely to bring up another tense issue between Congress and the administration — whether the U.S. should strip funding for Pakistan.
Ros-Lehtinen has said the discovery Osama bin Laden was hiding deep within Pakistan has raised new questions in Congress about whether Pakistan is really an ally of the U.S.
“Everything that we’ve sold to Pakistan, all the intelligence we shared with Pakistan, it’s all been called into question,” Ros-Lehtinen told The Hill.
The Obama administration has already withheld $800 million in aid to Pakistan, but Ros-Lehtinen has said she expects the House to approve language withholding $2 billion in aid until State certifies that Pakistan is fully assisting the U.S. in examining bin Laden’s support network in Pakistan.
Clinton has been traveling extensively in October. She was in Libya as rebel forces were closing in on Moammar Gadhafi, who was killed last week. Clinton also touched down in Afghanistan, Oman, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
On her jaunt, Clinton strongly urged Pakistan to pursue terrorists in the country, warning of “dire consequences” if it doesn’t.
She chided Uzbekistan on human rights in a move that could precede increased cooperation between the U.S. and the Central Asian country. As relations between Washington and Islamabad have worsened, the U.S. is eyeing Uzbekistan as a new supply route to the military operation in Afghanistan.
The State Department did not comment for this article.