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Republican Gains in Congress Would Pressure Biden on Ukraine and Iran

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WASHINGTON — A Republican takeover of the House or Senate in the midterm elections next week could complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to defend Ukraine, slow the confirmation of key U.S. ambassadors and lead to public interrogations of officials who were involved in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.

Congress has more leverage over domestic affairs than over foreign policy, thanks to the president’s broad powers as commander in chief. But Democrats are bracing for a far more complicated — and, they fear, more politicized — national security environment if Republicans control legislative calendars, committee chairmanships and spending power.

Most worrisome for the Biden administration is the prospect that Republicans might slow the torrent of money and weapons to Ukraine that began before Russia invaded in February. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, said last month that a Republican-led House would be unwilling to approve “blank check” assistance for Ukraine.

Congress has approved $60 billion in aid for Ukraine since the war began, with no explicit conditions. But some Republicans, encouraged by prominent conservatives like the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, are increasingly questioning the price tag of U.S. aid to the country.

Many conservatives, however, doubt that Mr. McCarthy’s comment and those of some Republican candidates mean that a Republican-led House would constrain U.S. support.

Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Republican Senate foreign policy staff member, called Mr. McCarthy’s remark “a completely empty, pandering statement” and said she was not worried about the party’s commitment to defending Ukraine.

I think that was just a toe in the water of this growing divide inside the Republican Party between the traditionalist, internationalist wing and the populist, Orban wing of the party,” said Ms. Pletka, referring to Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, a strongman who has become a hero to many conservative supporters of former President Donald J. Trump.

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, implicitly rebuked Mr. McCarthy by saying last month that the United States should do even more to support Kyiv. But several Republican Senate champions of Ukraine are retiring at the end of this Congress: Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

One possible scenario would be a new Republican emphasis on oversight to ensure that U.S. weapons and aid are not diverted from their intended use, in a country with a history of deep corruption. That note was sounded in June by the two Republicans in line to become chairmen of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

U.S. aid to Ukraine “will neither be effective nor politically sustainable without strong oversight and accountability mechanisms,” wrote Representative Mike McCaul of Texas and Senator Jim Risch of Idaho. Both men say they continue to support assisting Ukraine.

Mr. McCaul and Mr. Risch have been sharply critical of the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Both would probably summon Biden officials, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, to public hearings.

Mr. McCaul wrote to Mr. Blinken in mid-October requesting that the State Department preserve all documents and communications that might “be potentially responsive to a future congressional inquiry, request, investigation, or subpoena.”

In an August statement on the anniversary of the fall of Kabul, Mr. Risch complained that “we still don’t have full answers as to how the Biden administration failed to see it coming and did not have an effective plan in place to evacuate American citizens and Afghan partners.”

“They are going to drag the Biden administration over the coals over Afghanistan,” Ms. Pletka said.

Several Republicans called for Mr. Blinken’s resignation after the Kabul evacuation, and two House Republicans introduced a resolution calling for his impeachment. But Republicans say they do not expect such efforts to gain traction.

Mr. McCaul takes a particular interest in China and has expressed impatience with the pace of delivery of U.S. arms purchased by Taiwan for its defense against a potential Chinese invasion. He has also said he would insist on further tightening export controls to deprive China of critical American technology it might use for military purposes.

The representative led a House Republican task force on China that issued a report in 2020 calling for actions like increased military spending, new sanctions to punish Chinese human rights violations and more aggressive measures to counter Chinese propaganda.

Republicans in both chambers are eager to press the Biden administration over its policy toward Iran. Many Republicans have criticized President Biden for not doing more to support protesters who have been demonstrating for weeks against the country’s clerical regime.

“Republicans are going to put Iran back on the front burner in Washington,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think tank that calls for relentless pressure on the Iranian government.

“Republicans are going to be introducing sanctions bill after bill,” he said.

Republican gains in Congress would also further complicate Mr. Biden’s efforts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Mr. Trump abandoned.

International talks to restore the deal have been stalled for weeks, and Biden officials express doubt that Tehran is willing to scale back its nuclear program again for sanctions relief.

But big Republican gains in the U.S. Senate could make a surprise breakthrough harder to achieve. Under legislation passed by Congress in 2015, the House and Senate can vote to express disapproval of a nuclear agreement with Tehran and block the president’s ability to lift sanctions on Iran’s economy previously imposed by Congress.

Making things even more difficult for Mr. Biden will be the expected return as Israel’s prime minister of Benjamin Netanyahu, who had close relations with congressional Republican leaders. The Obama White House was infuriated in 2015 when Mr. Netanyahu accepted an invitation to address Congress from the Republican speaker, John Boehner, and criticized Mr. Obama’s efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran.

Like many Republicans in Congress, Mr. Netanyahu has been sharply critical of Mr. Biden’s efforts to negotiate with Iran and may once again work in a de facto alliance with them.

A Republican Senate could also further slow the confirmation of Mr. Biden’s nominees to national security positions throughout the government. In particular, the administration is still waiting for the Senate to confirm more than three dozen ambassadorial nominees, as well as other picks for mid- and high-level State Department posts. They include ambassadors to Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India, Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates.

Senate Democrats hope to confirm many of them before the end of the year. If they cannot, the nominations expire and the candidates must be nominated again at the start of the next Congress.

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