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Five Republicans Who Will Dominate on Foreign Policy in the Next Congress

The Republican wave that ripped through a series of House and Senate races on Tuesday will usher in a handful of new lawmakers whose voices will definitely be heard on U.S. foreign policy and national security issues in the fourth quarter of President Barack Obama’s tenure. At the same time, a number of long-serving Senate ...

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The Republican wave that ripped through a series of House and Senate races on Tuesday will usher in a handful of new lawmakers whose voices will definitely be heard on U.S. foreign policy and national security issues in the fourth quarter of President Barack Obama’s tenure. At the same time, a number of long-serving Senate Republicans will ascend to prominent roles on key committees tasked with overseeing the government’s diplomatic and security apparatus.

Here are the GOP faces to watch for on the foreign-policy front in the 114th Congress:

Mitch McConnell 

After staving off Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentuckian Mitch McConnell held a swaggering press conference on Wednesday announcing his broad plans for a GOP-controlled Senate. As the presumptive next Senate majority leader, McConnell will play a critical role in determining which pieces of foreign-policy legislation reach the floor.

When asked what key issues McConnell could cooperate on with the president, the soft-spoken five-term senator named one of the president’s signature foreign-policy priorities: “Trade agreements.”

“The president and I were just talking about that right before I came over here,” he said.

McConnell has been bullish on international trade, which bodes well for enacting “fast-track” trade authority, a legislative tool that would help the president close agreements on large trade deals under discussion in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. McConnell’s soon-to-be predecessor, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, would not bring that legislation to the floor because he worried that global trade would push down wages and cost union jobs. But with pro-trade Republicans about to dominate the Senate Finance Committee, fast-track authority now has a better chance of passing than ever.

Other collaborative foreign-policy issues that both McConnell and Obama mentioned on Wednesday included a Congress-approved strategy for combatting the Islamic State militant group and increased funding for the Pentagon’s response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. 

One thing McConnell did not mention that will surely loom large in the coming months is congressional action on Iran’s nuclear program. This year, Reid single-handedly prevented a bipartisan bill leveling new sanctions on Tehran from reaching the Senate floor because the White House feared it would upend the fragile nuclear negotiations the United States is conducting with Tehran in Vienna. Republicans have shown no such concern about disrupting the talks with punishing sanctions. “The pressure is now on President Obama to bear down and negotiate a good Iran deal or face a resounding political defeat when the Senate votes ‘no’ on the deal,” Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Foreign Policy.

John McCain

With his ubiquitous Sunday talk show presence and hawkish foreign-policy views, Arizonan John McCain is already one of the biggest thorns in the Obama administration’s side. But that tension will only grow as the one-time GOP presidential nominee takes control of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, a post he is expected to get that will allow him to hold regular hearings on the rise of the Islamic State and Syria’s civil war. McCain, an advocate for deploying ground troops in Syria and Iraq, will try to push the administration to dedicate more blood and treasure in the Middle East. He also hopes to find savings in the Pentagon’s bloated procurement system, a perennial priority of most chairs of the panel.

Tom Cotton

Rep. Tom Cotton’s victory over Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas sends a loud neoconservative voice to the Senate that will contrast dramatically with those of the newly ascendant GOP libertarians, such as Kentucky’s other GOP senator, Rand Paul. An Army veteran who frequently cites his tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Cotton has criticized the Obama administration on a number of fronts, in particular the president’s swap of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners.

“Every day in Ranger School, we recited the Ranger Creed that I will never leave a fallen comrade,” Cotton said in June. “When we made those promises to each other, we didn’t promise that we would exchange five stone-cold Taliban killers for each other, nor would any soldier want that to happen.”

Cotton, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would not say if he wants a seat on the Senate’s Intelligence, Foreign Relations, or Armed Services committees, but expect him to remain an outspoken advocate of American intervention.

Joni Ernst

During her successful Iowa Senate bid, Joni Ernst highlighted her service as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard “at every turn,” according to National Journal. “What I’d like to do is compare and contrast my record when it comes to foreign affairs, foreign policy, military affairs, contrast that with Congressman Bruce Braley and President Obama,” she said in a speech last month, citing her now-defeated Democratic rival.

Ernst hammered the administration for waiting too long to address the Islamic State threat and for failing to fix the broken Department of Veterans Affairs. She’s also shown a curious lack of knowledge about the run-up to the Iraq war, telling the Des Moines Register “I do have reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” despite the fact that no such weapons were ever found in the country. Her aides would not say whether she’d seek to play a role on any committee related to foreign policy, but it’s unlikely that she’ll stay quiet on these issues, regardless of where she sits.

Bob Corker

As the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessean Bob Corker has worked closely with the hawkish Democratic chairman of the committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey. As a result, the committee’s flavor of aggressive foreign policy wouldn’t likely change much under Corker’s direction, should he wind up leading the committee. (Most expect this to happen, although multiple Senate aides say if Alabaman Richard Shelby doesn’t end up as the Senate Banking Committee chairman, Corker would lead that plum panel in a heartbeat.)

Still, Corker has made clear he feels the president failed to enforce his “red line” on chemical weapons use in Syria, and that he should have launched punitive military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad last year, a measure Corker voted for. He’s also pushed the president to send weapons and equipment to Ukraine, where Kiev has been dealing with Russian-backed separatists for months. Those issues aren’t going away, and Corker is likely to continue adding his voice to the discussion.