Five ways GOP Senate can challenge Obama on national security

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Republican candidates are hammering Democrats on national security issues, looking to gain an edge ahead of Election Day.

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Candidates have criticized President Obama’s strategy on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as polls show growing public concern over the prolonged military campaign.

But ISIS is only one of many challenges facing the administration. And if Republicans capture the Senate — and with it control of Congress in November — GOP lawmakers could provide a major obstacle to the president’s foreign policy agenda.

Here are five issues where a Republican Senate could challenge Obama on national security.

 

1) Pushing ground troops against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

GOP lawmakers have been sharp critics of the president’s strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, questioning if air power alone can take out the terror group.

President Obama has ruled out U.S. combat troops, but many military officials have said that ground forces will be needed to root out ISIS. The U.S. is moving to train vetted Syrian rebel groups and to adviser Iraqi forces to carry out the fight, but critics warn those local forces will not be ready for months, maybe years.

Republicans, most notably Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), have called for a more robust response, including deploying special forces on the ground to coordinate coalition airstrikes against ISIS.

McCain is widely expected to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee should Republicans take the upper chamber.

The gavel would give McCain responsibility for crafting the Senate version of the Pentagon’s annual policy blueprint, and provide him a prominent role overseeing the anti-ISIS fight.

“This is absolutely going to be a priority of a Republican Congress,” predicted Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

The GOP likely will hold several “high profile” hearings scrutinizing the administration’s strategy against ISIS, said Eaglen. And with control of the Pentagon’s purse strings, Republican lawmakers will have a greater say in the military campaign.

 

2) Keeping troops in Afghanistan.

In May, the president announced that a residual force of 9,800 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan for one year following the end of combat operations in December. That number will be cut in half at the close of 2015 and reduced further at the end of 2016 to a small military presence securing the U.S. Embassy.

The planned drawdown was met by fierce Republican opposition, which has only increased following the security meltdown in Iraq, where ISIS has captured large parts of the country and threatens Baghdad.

A GOP Senate could slow Obama’s plans to reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of Defense, said lawmakers could put “a provision in the annual defense authorization bill saying ‘If you want to spend any money on defense, you’re going to have to keep troops in Afghanistan.’”

Korb said Republicans could go further, detailing the number of troops they want in Afghanistan in the Pentagon’s policy and spending bills.

The Republican-controlled House in June used the Pentagon spending bill to block Obama’s plans to shutter the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The $491 spending bill included language preventing future prisoner transfers.

 

3) Reversing sequestration cuts.

A Republican Senate could also push to reverse sequestration cuts.

Critics have seized on the fight against ISIS, seeing an opportunity to restore funds ahead of a long military campaign.

A bipartisan budget deal worked out at the end of 2013 gave the Defense Department billions in relief across fiscal years 2014 and 2015. However, the sequester cuts are set to return in force in fiscal 2016.

“If the GOP can come and lift sequester, both in terms of a plus-up for the defense budget and giving department leadership more authority over where the cuts should be made, that will be all for the good,” said Elbridge Colby, the Robert M. Gates Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Democrats, though, would put up a fierce fight against any plan to ease the sequester on the Pentagon while keeping in place cuts on domestic spending.

Colby though said lawmakers “are really going to have to confront” defense spending, noting that in addition to ISIS, the Pentagon is also watching Russia and China build up their militaries.

 

4) Tightening Iran sanctions and arming Ukraine.

A GOP Senate would also be roadblock to any potential nuclear agreement with Iran.

Negotiators have a Nov. 24 deadline to reach an agreement to rollback economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran halting its nuclear program.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Obama would like to a deal allowing him to “calibrate” sanctions with Iran’s actions. “Turn them on and off as a function of actual progress in any negotiation.”

But Republican lawmakers will be far less flexible and much more skeptical of any Iranian promises.

The Obama administration has already faced bipartisan scrutiny over the talks, with key Democrats, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) skeptical Iran will follow through.

GOP lawmakers also reacted angrily to a New York Times report this week, suggesting that the administration might seek to bypass Congress on an Iran deal.

“The American people will not tolerate a president who wheels and deals with a radical regime behind their backs and dodges congressional oversight every chance he gets,” Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Wednesday.

The White House called the report “preposterous,” and said permanently removing Iran sanctions would require a congressional vote.

The administration lifted some economic sanctions against Iran in order to get the country to the negotiation table, but GOP lawmakers say the State Department has given Iran too many concessions without enough in return.

On Russia, though, many Republicans say the administration’s sanctions have not done enough to make Moscow back down against Ukraine.

“Ukraine is really the straw that broke the camel’s back, in terms of public support for the president’s foreign policy decisions,” said Eaglen.

She said the situation would remain “front and center” for the new Congress and said a GOP Senate would press Obama to give lethal military aid to Ukraine and tighten Russia sanctions.

The White House so far has rejected calls for defensive weapons for Ukraine, arguing that it would only intensify the violence between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow.

 

5.) Probing the Bowe Bergdahl trade.

One of the most politicized national security issues this year was the president's decision to exchange captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners.

In August, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called on the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate why the president violated a law requiring the administration to notify Congress 30 days ahead of transferring any detainees. 

The House a month later passed a resolution condemning the White House for approving the swap.

Korb said a GOP Senate could launch a congressional investigation into the trade.

"They could set up a select committee," he said, similar to the House panel probing the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

A key factor will be the results of the Army's investigation into Bergdahl's disappearance and capture by the Taliban in 2009. The service has yet to release the findings of its inquiry.