Two weeks after the U.S. mid-term elections, party control of the two houses of Congress is coming into sharper view. The control of both the Senate and House of Representatives is fairly certain at this point – the House will switch to the control of the opposition Republican party by somewhere between 3 and 5 seats (out of 435 total), and the Democrats will hold control of the Senate (either 50/50 with the tie breaker vote in the hands of Vice President Kalama Harris or 51/49 if the incumbent Democratic candidate wins in a December 6 run-off in Georgia). What does this mean for the foreign policy of the United States over the next two years?
Compared to the legislature, the U.S. executive branch holds extraordinary power in the conduct of foreign affairs as well as military-security issues including the use of force. This supremacy was strengthened by both political parties in the years following World War II when they held the presidency. The methods by which either or both houses of Congress can influence foreign and security policy are limited. Of the two houses, the Senate holds the most power in foreign and security affairs due to its role in confirming senior-level executive branch appointees and ratifying treaties. Since President Biden’s party retained control (and may strengthen it by one vote), any new appointees (likely as senior officials often stay on the job for only two years) and any treaties (highly unlikely as they have become scarce as a tool of foreign policy) could be approved.
Meanwhile, the Republican House majority will hold (potentially contentious) hearings, introduce legislation attempting to constrain Biden administration policies. Even so, the Republicans will have a difficult time translating that slim majority in the House into any significant changes or challenges to the Biden administration’s foreign or security policy. Anti-Biden administration bills on foreign or security policy passed in the House on party-line votes will almost certainly fail in the Senate or fall to a veto. Attempts to hold up funding for Biden administration foreign policy spending will be part of larger spending bills and will be negotiated out as part of a larger budget package with foreign policy cuts not being the deciding factors.
One of the more likely conflicts between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House may be funding for foreign policy or military-related spending – the latter category could include further foreign security assistance for Ukraine. Ukraine’s retaking of Kherson has reassured western governments that Ukraine is gaining the upper hand. All other things held equal, that should underpin more funding for military support. But the split between the Senate and House may prove problematic for the Biden administration’s support of Ukraine.