Speaker John Boehner’s Tuesday speech criticizing the White House’s policy toward Russia and warning he might block its bid to join the World Trade Organization was the latest demonstration of the Ohio Republican’s increasing foray into international affairs.
In the policy-heavy speech before the conservative Heritage Foundation, Boehner made the case for a fundamental change to the White House’s “reset” of relations with Russia, arguing that approach has failed.
“The United States should insist Russia ‘reset’ its own policies. If those appeals require teeth, the House stands ready to provide them. … Articulating our values is no act of belligerence, and certainly nothing to be sorry for,” Boehner said.
On the issue of Russia’s entry into the WTO, Boehner made international headlines by arguing that Russia’s acceptance into that organization should be contingent on the recognition by Moscow of the “territorial integrity” of neighboring Georgia.
Over the past six months, Boehner has demonstrated a willingness to engage in foreign policy.
“He’s a guy who’s got a broad view of the world and understands the role of the House in all those dramas,” said Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who has traveled with Boehner in Latin America and North Africa.
And while Boehner sees a role for the opposition in the area of foreign affairs, he has also “expressed a high understanding of constitutional executive authority regardless of who’s president,” Roskam said.
Stepping into the spotlight on a foreign policy issue — particularly one not related to a war or a breaking news event — is a relatively rare thing for top leaders of the House and Senate.
“Sometimes the general public doesn’t get the chance to see or hear the policy position of Congressional leaders” on foreign policy issues, Heritage Foundation President Edwin Feulner said before Boehner’s Russia speech.
Since taking the gavel from former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who also demonstrated a keen interest in foreign policy issues — Boehner has taken a much more expansive approach to international affairs.
In June, Boehner took the White House to task over its decision to become involved in the Libyan civil war, sending President Barack Obama a sternly worded letter questioning whether the decision conformed to the War Powers Resolution.
Either “you have concluded the War Powers Resolution does not apply to the mission in Libya, or you have determined the War Powers Resolution is contrary to the Constitution. The House, and the American people whom we represent, deserve to know the determination you have made.”
The situation in Libya quickly became a political firestorm in the House, with Democrats and Republicans attempting to force votes on a series of resolutions. A sizable coalition of Republicans and Democrats pushed Boehner to allow votes on defunding the Libyan effort and condemning the war.
At the same time, Boehner and many in the House and Senate were wary of completely tying Obama’s hands in how he handled Libya. In the end, Boehner split the difference, bringing a resolution of approval to the floor — which was easily defeated — followed by a vote on defunding most of the war effort, which was also defeated.
The gambit allowed lawmakers to make their concerns known while giving the White House the ability to continue operations — but with a clearly implied limitation on how long Congress would allow those operations to go on.
On trade issues, Boehner has also demonstrated an ability to navigate difficult international and domestic waters. He was able to push through a package of trade bills this month, but only after he and his leadership team cut a deal to move a trade assistance package that unions and the White House wanted. The deal allowed the bulk of his Members to vote against that bill, but it still ensured passage of the overall package.
On the question of China’s manipulation of its currency, Boehner has broken with many Members of his own party in explicitly ruling out taking up punitive measures, arguing it could prompt a trade war. Still, he hit the White House for not being more forceful on the issue.
“I think it’s a dangerous policy. And the fact of the matter is the president should stand up … where’s the leadership?” Boehner said Tuesday.
Boehner was also quite measured in his response to Obama’s announcement that, as the administration of George W. Bush had negotiated, all U.S. combat troops would be out of Iraq by the end of the year. The GOP presidential field and foreign policy heavyweights such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attacked Obama, but Boehner took a far more nuanced approach.
“We must never forget the sacrifice of those who’ve served and all who will soon be making the journey home. And we owe it to them to continue engaging with the Iraqi government in a way that ensures our hard-fought gains translate into long-term success,” Boehner said in a statement.
“While I’m concerned that a full withdrawal could jeopardize those gains, I’m hopeful that both countries will work together to guarantee that a free and democratic Iraq remains a strong and stable partner for the United States in the Middle East,” he added.
Boehner’s concerns were a far cry from the criticisms of other Republicans, who accused Obama of playing politics. According to sources familiar with his thinking, during a trip to Iraq in April, Boehner met with local and military officials on the withdrawal. During those meetings, including with Iraqi President Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Iraqi officials made it clear that they would like U.S. forces to remain in the country in a limited capacity but that internal political pressures would make that difficult.
“Now that the decision has been made to take all troops out, it’s fair to say that Boehner is very concerned that the security gains we’ve been made could be jeopardized and that the country might take steps backward,” one source said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.