Congressional Update – Week Ending January 5, 2018

I. Congress

Only the Senate was in session the first week of 2018, but lawmakers did not accomplish anything significant related to foreign policy. Instead, the congressional leadership and the White House met to discuss solutions for funding the government for fiscal year 2018. A few notable personnel changes also took place.

1) Personnel

Two New Senators Take Their Seats. On January 3, Democratic Senators Doug Jones (Alabama) and Tina Smith (Minnesota) were sworn into office. Jones won a hotly contested special election in Alabama in December, becoming the first Democrat to represent the state in over two decades. He filled the seat vacated by former Senator and current US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Smith, on the other hand, was appointed by Minnesota’s governor to replace Al Franken, whose announced resignation took effect on January 2, in the wake of several sexual misconduct allegations.

Neither of the two new senators have anything on their records that indicate they will get involved in foreign affairs to a high degree, but as they take their seats, the chamber becomes reduced to a minuscule 51-49 majority for Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) will have a much tougher time pushing the GOP agenda along party lines and it will be interesting to see how the White House reacts if business slows even further in the Senate.

Hatch to Retire in 2018. On January 2, the longest serving Republican senator, Orrin Hatch (Utah), announced that he would forego reelection in 2018 and retire after serving for over 40 years in the nation’s highest chamber. Hatch is one of the more powerful senators in the field of domestic policy and his vacancy could have numerous implications for President Donald Trump and the GOP’s agenda. Most notably, his looming retirement all but ensures that two-time presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, will seek Hatch’s Senate seat. Romney, though fiscally conservative, does not always fall in line with some of the Republican Party’s more controversial or unpopular decisions. Combined with his contempt for Mr. Trump, a “Senator Romney” could potentially jeopardize the Trump-McConnell agenda, especially during the last two years of Trump’s first term. Romney could prove to be a swing vote on a number issues, much like GOP Senators Susan Collins (Maine) and John McCain (Arizona).

II. Executive Branch

President Trump returned to Washington, DC this week after spending the holidays at his “Winter White House” in Florida. Though no concrete steps were taken to shake up foreign policy, the president and his team made several comments over the last week that could have major implications in the Middle East, should any of the statements come to fruition.

US Could Cut UNRWA Funding. On January 2, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, held a press conference to kick off the new year. During the briefing, Haley announced that the Trump Administration was considering the idea of cutting funding to Palestinians—primarily the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which is tasked, among other things, with providing humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees—until the Palestinian Authority (PA) agrees to return to the negotiating table. PA officials have boycotted working with the United States to reach a peace deal with Israel after Trump’s controversial decision last month to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announcement of plans to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Though it is uncertain whether the White House will pursue halting funds to UNRWA, which is internationally recognized for its humanitarian efforts, any such step would potentially harm the United States’ foreign relations further. Aside from the obvious distrust that would be fomented within the Palestinian community, allies like Jordan and Lebanon rely on UNRWA to help provide for their large Palestinian refugee populations. Jordan, for example, could ill afford for its ally to cut funding from the organization when UNRWA helps provide for over two million registered Palestinian refugees living in Jordan.

US Officials Lend Support for Protests in Iran. For nearly a week, protests have taken place in most major cities in Iran. Observers have explained the peaceful protests as an expression of Iranians’ frustration with limited economic prosperity, rampant corruption, and the conservative regime’s strict rules for society. Though no major anti-regime protests have been reported over the last couple of days, the six days of unrest have left at least 21 dead in what are considered the largest protests in Iran since 2009. Whether in front of a camera, in written press releases, or via Twitter, a number of high-profile US officials have voiced support for the protesters in Iran, with the State Department even going as far as tweeting out support for them in Farsi.

Many supporters of regime change in Iran hope that President Trump and his administration will more fully embrace the protests than former President Obama did in 2009. However, others are more circumspect regarding how the United States should approach the situation. It has long been held that the United States—often portrayed as a meddling “Great Satan” by Iranian state media—must tread carefully when issuing support. In some ways, full-throated support coming from the White House or Congress fuels conspiracies of US meddling in Iranian politics, which drives a wedge between protesters.

Perhaps of more concern to policymakers in the United States, however, is what kind of response US support could elicit from the clerical regime in the Islamic Republic. Cracking down on its own citizens, while abhorrent, would not be new. However, now that US troops are in close proximity to Iran’s proxies throughout the Middle East, there is concern about potential plans to target the United States. Whether it is in Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq, Iran has the ability to mobilize support and target US interests in response to any perceived threat to the regime in Tehran.

Shortly after publication of this week’s Congressional Update, it was reported that the Trump Administration did, in fact, freeze a sum of $125 million allocated to UNRWA.