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For Biden foreign policy, election an irritant but not impediment

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US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden arrive for an election eve rally at Bowie State University in Maryland on November 7, 2022./AFP
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Nov 10, 2022 - 03:38 AM

WASHINGTON — Republican gains in Congress will bring headaches to President Joe Biden as he shepherds aid to Ukraine and on climate, but with midterm election results unexpectedly close, Biden will still be firmly in command on the world stage.

Kevin McCarthy, who is poised to become the next speaker if Republicans win the House of Representatives, has warned of no “blank check” for Ukraine and his party is deeply hostile to climate action, just as a UN summit in Egypt considers major new assistance for worst-hit nations.

But the Republican mainstream has joined Biden’s Democrats in approving billions of dollars to Ukraine to fight Russian invaders and Tuesday’s midterm election was no vindication of the party’s right flank, with Democrats outperforming expectations for an incumbent party.

If the Republicans gain control of at least one chamber, as appears likely, their more immediate action will likely be hearings which could rally their base and bog down the Biden foreign policy team.

“They’re not going to have the votes to override a presidential veto. They’re not going to have the power to advance an affirmative agenda,” said Brian Finucane, a former senior State Department official now at the International Crisis Group.

“Where they can wield power is to block initiatives by the administration or to conduct oversight,” he said.

Hearing topics that could energize Republicans range from assessing the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan to probing the origins of Covid-19 to airing speculation over the infamous laptop of Biden’s son Hunter.

Same stance, if not tone, on China 

Areas of strong disagreement include Iran, with Republicans adamantly opposed to Biden’s efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated by Barack Obama, although diplomacy was already at a standstill as Tehran’s clerical leaders try to put down major protests.

But the Republicans could forge a strategic alliance with another figure back on the scene, Israel’s returning prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rallied opposition against Obama’s Iran policy.

On the top issue of China, the Republicans and Democrats largely see eye to eye with both Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump identifying the rising Asian power as the top global challenger to the United States.

Tensions soared in August after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, the self-governing democracy claimed by Beijing. McCarthy not only backed her trip but complained that the Democratic leader did not take him along.

Michael McCaul, who stands to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently helped introduce a bill that would ramp up support for Taiwan by directly providing military aid, as opposed to the longstanding setup in which Taipei buys weapons it requests.

“There is not a ton of daylight between Republicans and the Biden administration when it comes to China policy,” said Anna Ashton, a China expert at the Eurasia Group.

But she said: “I think that no matter what the Biden administration does to get tough on China, Republicans are likely to say that it should do more.”

One difference from Democrats would be the messaging from party outliers.

Some more hawkish Republicans advocate moving away from the One China policy of recognizing only Beijing, which has warned that any move toward Taiwan’s formal independence could trigger war.

No more Florida holding back? 

After the 2020 election, the Biden administration, struck by Trump’s gains in Florida, treaded cautiously on Latin America, a signature issue for much of the staunchly anti-communist Latino community with roots in Cuba or Venezuela.

Biden did not touch a last-minute designation by Trump of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and has officially not budged on a push to topple Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, although climate envoy John Kerry shook hands with the leftist leader at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt.

But the midterm election may signal to some Democrats that winning the third most populous state is a lost cause with Governor Ron DeSantis, a rising Republican star, winning by nearly 20 points.

Ivan Briscoe, a Latin America watcher also at the International Crisis Group, said Biden had few achievements in a region where left-leaning presidents have been elected since late last year in Brazil, Chile and Colombia.

“Florida will remain as a holdout of what you might call fairly conservative approaches to Latin America, in which case there’s nothing which the Biden administration could do. Instead, it must actually focus on the reality of Latin America, which is moving in a very different direction,” Briscoe said.

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