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July 26, 2012 1:27 pm

US Congressional Elections: Critical to US-Israel Relations

avatar by Yoram Ettinger

Capitol Hill. Photo: wiki commons.

During a June 15, 2012 seminar at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Dr. Bill Schneider, a leading expert on US politics, reaffirmed that both chambers of Congress play a key role in determining US-Israel relations.

In 1990, US Secretary of the Navy asked Senator Inouye, Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, to delete from the proposed defense bill an amendment to upgrade the port of Haifa for the benefit of the Sixth Fleet:  “Senator, I am the Secretary of the Navy, and I know that the Six Fleet does not need the upgrade.”  Inouye retorted: “Mr. Secretary, according to the US Constitution, I supervise you, and I have determined that the Sixth Fleet would benefit from such an upgrade.”  Inouye’s position derived from the end of the Cold War which eroded the importance of the port of Naples, and from the gathering sandstorms from the Persian Gulf (leading to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait) which enhanced the significance of the port of Haifa for the Sixth Fleet. The port of Haifa was upgraded despite opposition by President Bush and Secretary of State Baker who orchestrated Secretary Lehman’s appeal.

The recent Egyptian turmoil exposes the uncertainty surrounding US-Egypt relations and the reliability of the port of Alexandria. Therefore, it has elevated the relevance of the Israeli ports of Haifa and Ashdod to the Sixth Fleet. It underscores the vitality of Congress as a joint-front-seat-driver in setting the national security agenda.

In November 2012, Americans will elect all 435 members of the House of Representatives, 33 U.S. senators and thousands of state and local elected officials, some of whom will eventually reach Capitol Hill. According to a July 23, 2012 Rasmussen national poll, since mid-2009, Republican congressional candidates have been systematically more popular than Democrats. 43% of likely voters would vote for Republican congressional candidates, if the election were held today, while 40% would elect Democrats.

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Most polls document a strong possibility of a sustained – although moderately eroded – Republican House majority (currently at 242:190 and 3 vacancies).  Democrats need a robust tailwind – which is not in sight at this stage – to regain the House majority. At the same time, the Senate Democratic majority is vulnerable (53:47).  However, the number of toss-up Senate races – such as Florida, Massachusetts, Maine, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Virginia, Wisconsin, Nevada, Ohio, New Mexico and Hawaii – is relatively large.  Therefore, the race for the Senate majority – which may indicate the winner of the presidency – is wide open.

House and Senate majorities will be greatly affected by the presidential approval rating on election date. Will Obama be a “coattail president,” sweeping his party to victories, as he did in 2008 (69% approval rating), or will he be an “anchor-chained president,” dragging his party to defeats, as he did in 2010(46%), and as Presidents Bush (34%), Carter (37%) and Ford (45%) did in 1992, 1980 and 1976 respectively?

The fate of congressional races, also, depends on the number of Democratic and Republican seats on the ballot. The higher is the number of seats, the higher is the vulnerability of the party.  Thus, the Senate Democratic majority is threatened by the 23 Democratic-held Senate seats – in contrast to only 10 Republican-held seats – on the ballot in November.  However, the substantial Republican House majority – which exposes more Republican seats – provides an opportunity for a Democratic gain in the House.

Congressional retirements may indicate an electoral trend, in addition to a reflection of political aspirations or fatigue. Hence, the six Democratic – versus three Republican – retirements from the Senate, and the 15D:11R retirement ratio in the House, could reflect legislators’ own assessments of the odds in the November election.

The outcome of the Congressional races will, also, be determined by the turnout rate and by the appeal of the individual candidates to the Independents, who account for some 40% of the electorate.   Usually, the Independents include “swing voters,” “switchovers” and “undecided voters.” The turnout rate will be influenced by the enthusiasm and frustration factors (e.g. “Anti-establishment,” “Hope & Change,” shattered 2008 hopes) generated by the presidential and congressional candidates.

In order to realize the significance of the November 2012 congressional elections, one should be aware that Congress is the most powerful legislature in the world. This is the co-equal, co-determining branch of the US government, the most authentic representative of the American people, which has the muscle – when it chooses to exercise it – to initiate, amend, suspend and overrule presidential policies.

International observers, and especially friends of Israel, should focus on the congressional races.  When it comes to third down and ten yards to go, Israel has no better, trusted and effective friend than both chambers of the US Congress.

This post first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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