What Do the U.S. Midterms Mean for Foreign Policy toward the Americas?

The U.S. midterm elections have passed, and, as was largely expected, Republicans now hold a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The elections, like the year that preceded them, were characterized by deep partisanship and a contentiousness that will be hard to leave behind going into the new year.

With the GOP in control of the legislature—and largely at odds with the White House—what can we expect of the new Congress in its policies relevant to the Western Hemisphere?

Q1: What does the election’s outcome mean, both here in the United States and for the region?
Many have taken these elections to be a repudiation of Washington, the two-party system, status-quo politics, and President Obama.

If that read is accurate, the changeover of the Senate from Democratic to Republican majority is reflective of Americans’ interest in change. So, what can we expect? Will a Republican legislature put an end to the current gridlock?

It will take some time to know the answer. But what the new Congress will have, for sure, is a real opportunity to get things done with both sides of the aisle aware that failing to have tangible accomplishments will mean proof of their inability to govern. And it’s up to each party’s leadership to demonstrate that it can govern when put in charge—a powerful message to send as we approach the 2016 presidential election.

It’s worth noting, too, that President Obama, facing an opposition Congress, may tend toward symbolic foreign policy gestures as he seeks to establish his legacy in the region. For Latin America, this could include Obama attending the April 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama in spite of Cuba’s invitation to the event, or explicit U.S. support for Colombia in the context of its ongoing peace process.

Q2: What movement, if any, are we likely to see in the lame duck period?
The lame duck period, or the final working session before new members begin (roughly between the midterm election and the beginning of the new Congress), has often proven ideal for breaking stalemates on issues, as outgoing lawmakers can vote on controversial issues without subjecting themselves to political liability before leaving office.

Many doubt that this year’s lame duck will be particularly productive, given the divisive climate on Capitol Hill this year. But the potential for action could materialize in a number of ways—particularly regarding issues relevant to the Americas.

The immigration and border crisis that developed over the summer, as unprecedented numbers of undocumented children flooded across our southern border, has yet to be addressed by Congress, which failed to pass legislation authorizing emergency funding before it entered recess. But when legislators reconvene on November 12, we could see a renewed effort to provide that funding before the new year—and that could address both border security and the capacity to handle the ongoing crisis.

The lame duck period could also see some action from the White House on this issue in an effort to make progress before facing a reinvigorated GOP next year. Immediately after the midterm elections, President Obama asked Congress to send him an immigration bill to sign and reasserted his intention to use executive authority to fill in the gaps in the meantime.

This bodes poorly for immigration reform, as anything beyond measures to bolster border security and address the current crisis—anything, in other words, that involves broader reform by executive fiat—would be seen as antagonizing the GOP and could lessen the potential for cooperation for broader reform.

There’s also potential that presidential trade negotiating authority—so-called fast-track authority—could be revisited during the lame duck. With outgoing legislators (and especially outgoing Democrats) potentially more willing to give up some congressional discretion in exchange for executive productivity in trade negotiations, the two sides might come together and reauthorize this presidential power. Still, prospects are mixed, as many congressional Democrats remain firmly opposed.

And finally, the lame duck could show promising progress on ambassadorial nominations. Though certain nominees could use some reconsideration, removing the congressional hold on processing nominees would send the right message from the get-go, showing that the new Republican majority is ready to meet the White House halfway and move past the gridlock.

Q3: What can we expect of the new Congress during 2015 run-up to the presidential election cycle?
Once the lame duck ends and the holidays pass, the new Congress will come in mid-January 2015—and this is where we may see the most action.

With the Republican Party in control of both the Senate and the House, bicameral legislative consensus will certainly be easier to reach than in the past several years. But this will also present the greatest challenge for the GOP, as it fights the temptation of passing Republican-branded bills that President Obama is all but certain to veto.

Between January and early fall—in other words, in advance of the thick of the presidential election cycle for 2016—there is both the interest and the momentum for legislative productivity. The challenge for the majority is to demonstrate that they can govern—this will be particularly relevant as we approach 2016.

So what could get done, in the spirit of productivity, compromise, and governing?

If, for example, the president does not use his executive authority to enact broad immigration reform, we could (finally) see real movement on comprehensive reform of the outdated U.S. immigration framework. Relative consensus in the two chambers could be impetus enough to pass legislation reforming immigration—though the nature of that reform may not please both sides of the aisle. And both parties are incentivized to make progress on this issue, given the growing relevance of the Latino voter demographic—a group increasingly “up for grabs” in national elections.

If trade authority isn’t addressed in the lame duck period, it could well be addressed in early 2015.

With the GOP’s traditional support for free trade agreements, a Republican Congress could in fact prove more likely to work with the White House on this issue. This could, in turn, lead to progress on pending trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—and some even speculate that this could empower the administration to update the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

A Republican Congress might also prove likely to drive a hard line with Venezuela—particularly given the country’s deteriorating political stability. U.S. sanctions could, in turn, increase under the new congressional leadership.

And finally, we could see a congressional effort to force the White House to deliver its decision regarding the KeystoneXL oil pipeline that would link oil fields in Alberta, Canada, to transport and refinement chains here in the United States. Though it is an executive-branch decision, congressional legislation could seek to speed up the process that has been pending for several years.

Conclusion: The swing in control of the Senate and Republicans’ control over the House were not unexpected. But the degree of that swing should not be overstated. Sixth-year midterms have seen a swing in party control in 9 of the 11 contests since 1900. And though President Obama’s approval ratings are low, that swing can most likely be attributed to Washington’s ineffectiveness in recent months and years.

Ultimately, the new Congress will have a limited opportunity to prompt meaningful activity generally speaking, and even less so regarding Latin America. The 2016 election looms large for Republicans and Democrats alike, in the context of the GOP’s need to demonstrate its ability to get things done and given the White House’s growing interest in bolstering President Obama’s modest legacy in the region. With all sights set on 2016, who will take the lead?

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jillian Rafferty, program coordinator and research assistant with the Americas Program, provided research assistance.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Carl Meacham