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How Democrats could flip the Senate and what it means for the Middle East

If Democrats take over the upper chamber, committee minority leaders will likely become majority leaders. But where do they stand on key issues?
The US Capitol is seen as the Senate is expected to confirm President Trump's Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on 26 October (AFP/File photo)

After losing its majority in 2014, Democrats hope to take back control of the Senate this November. 

The most powerful of the two congressional houses, if Democrats do win the Senate, the heads of its powerful committees will be flipped, with minority leaders likely becoming majority leaders. 

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Most pollsters suggest that a Democratic takeover is within reach, needing a net gain of four Senate seats to win the chamber. 

Since the House of Representatives is expected to stay in Democratic control, a Senate win could mean major power for the liberal party, regardless of the outcome of the presidential election.

Senate committees study thousands of pieces of legislation each year, interview and evaluate presidential nominations, research and issue reports, provide general oversight to government departments and hold both public and private hearings on topics within their jurisdiction - among other responsibilities. 

Several key oversight committees have significant influence over American foreign policy, border control and intelligence agencies - all positions that directly affect US-Middle East relations. 

Middle East Eye takes a look at the Senate's Democratic leaders with positions of sway in key committees and their positions on issues of concern in the region. 

Foreign Relations Committee: Robert Menendez 

(AFP/File photo)
Robert Menendez would likely take over the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, a position he held from 2013 to 2015 (AFP/File photo)

Currently the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez would likely take over as the committee's chair, a position he held from 2013 to 2015. 

Menendez holds some strong positions that have not always gone the way of party leadership. He was opposed both to former President Obama's entering the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) in 2015 and to President Trump's withdrawal from it in 2018. 

"While I strongly opposed the JCPOA, it is a grave mistake to walk away from this deal without a plan for ensuring that Iran does not restart its nuclear weapon program, without a strategy for countering Iran’s dangerous non-nuclear activities, and without our allies and partners," Menendez said following the Trump administration's withdrawal.

Still, he has supported continued sanctions against Iran.

He was against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's nomination to the position, accusing him of being a war-hawk and "a yes man" that would blindly support the "commander in chaos".

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Last year, Menendez single-handedly held up an $8bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, prompting the Trump administration to issue an emergency declaration to push the sale forward without congressional approval.

The declaration sparked outrage among lawmakers who responded by passing a resolution to block the sales, but the measure was eventually vetoed by Trump.

Like most Democrats in Congress, he also strongly supports ending direct US military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. At the same time, he has emphasised the rival Houthi movement's "significant responsibility in the deterioration of the state of affairs".  

He also opposed the US withdrawal of troops from Syria, saying the move "abandoned Kurdish allies". 

A staunch ally of Israel, in March Menendez warned of regional threats to the country's stability. 

"In Lebanon, Hezbollah has solidified its grip on the cabinet and continues to threaten Israel's security. And on its northern border with Syria, Iran and its proxies enjoy the blessing of both Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime and the backing of Russian air support as they expand their footprint and inch ever closer to Israel," he said. 

Last week, Menendez co-sponsored a bill that would require the White House to certify that Israel's military advantage in the region would not be jeopardised before the US starts selling its most advanced military aircraft to Middle Eastern countries.

Senator Menendez was reelected in 2018 and his seat will be up for election in 2024.

Senate Intelligence Committee: Mark Warner

(AFP/File photo)
Democratic Senator Mark Warner is vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee (AFP/File photo)

The Senate Intelligence Committee is responsible for providing oversight to US intelligence agencies and bureaus. 

Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the committee, in 2018 voted to approve the nomination of Gina Haspel to head the CIA. Haspel took heat from senators during her nomination hearings for running a secret prison in Thailand where suspected al-Qaeda prisoners were tortured in the early 2000s. 

At the time, Warner said he voted in favour of her nomination because he felt she genuinely regretted her actions.

"I believe in both her private conversations and the letter that she wrote me where she acknowledged it was wrong. And she makes constant references to her moral code. That was sufficient for me," Warner told NPR news. 

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Regarding the 2018 murder of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Warner said the US administration should have done more to hold the kingdom accountable and slammed the US president for not listening to the intelligence community's determination regarding the Saudi crown prince's involvement in the assassination. 

"The president's failure to hold Saudi Arabia responsible in any meaningful way for the death of Jamal Khashoggi is just one more example of this White House’s retreat from American leadership on issues like human rights and protecting the free press," Warner said. 

"It's hard to imagine that the Saudis would have taken this action under a Reagan, Bush, Clinton or Obama Administration without facing serious repercussions"

The vice-chair also slammed the Trump administration's move to pull US troops out of Syria in 2019, saying it was a "betrayal" of the Kurdish forces that had been leading the American coalition's fight against the Islamic State (IS) group. 

On the Trump administration's assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January, Warner said that while the general "should not be mourned", the administration should have consulted Congress before taking the action. 

He took a similar stance regarding the Trump administration's decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem - not outright condemning the move, but saying it came "at the wrong time". 

Senator Warner's seat is up for election in 2020.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee: Gary Peters

(AFP/File photo)
Senator Gary Peters is a ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (AFP/File photo)

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is the chief oversight committee of the US Senate. Originally the Governmental Affairs Committee, in 2003 it took on oversight responsibility for the Department of Homeland Security, which is comparable to the other nations' ministry of interiors. 

Gary Peters, top Democrat on the committee, has voted for legislation to strengthen the Visa Waiver Program, and in 2017, spoke out against the Trump administration's suspension of the US's refugee programme, saying the new rules were "effectively implementing a religious test".

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“As a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Armed Services Committees, my top priority is ensuring we’re doing everything we can to keep Americans safe. But I am also proud to represent vibrant Muslim and Arab American communities that are integral to Michigan's culture and our economy," Peters, who represents the Great Lakes state, said in a statement at the time. 

"The US should not close its doors to refugees fleeing the brutality of ISIS, who slaughter all those who disagree with their twisted ideology," he continued, using a different acronym for the IS group. 

Peters supported the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and condemned the Trump administration's withdrawal. He has been a proponent of de-escalating tensions with Iran. 

He has voted in favour of ending US support for Saudi Arabia's coalition in Yemen. 

Peters' seat is up for election in 2020.

Senate Armed Services Committee: Jack Reed

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Senator Jack Reed has been critical of the Trump administration's support for Saudi Arabia (AFP/File photo)

The Armed Services Committee provides oversight for the US military, including the Department of Defense and other matters related to defence policy.

Ranking Democrat on the committee, Jack Reed has been critical of the Trump administration's support for Saudi Arabia, which he says has displayed "increasingly brazen behavior". 

A month after the assassination of Khashoggi, Reed called for the US to take a hardline stance against the Gulf ally, including against its actions in Yemen.

"Ending aerial refueling support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and imposing sanctions on some Saudi officials who participated in the murder of US resident Jamal Khashoggi are welcome, but not sufficient," Reed said at the time.  

"Congress must demand full accountability for human rights abuses, including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, while taking a more active role in pushing for a negotiated settlement to end the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen".

Reed supported the Iran nuclear deal and condemned the January killing of Iranian General Soleimani, saying it "significantly increased the likelihood for direct conflict, and, with it, the risks to Americans and our national interests". 

The Senator has decried what he said was "President Trump’s total national security failure and lack of a plan for Syria". 

"The President’s impetuous decision to betray the Kurds and acquiesce to the Turkish invasion has been a catastrophe for the United States. It’s a disaster strategically," Reed said of Trump's US troop withdrawal from Syria.  

Reed in 2019 co-sponsored a resolution condemning the Palestinian Boycott Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but opposed the Trump administration's US embassy move to Jerusalem. 

Reed's seat is up for election in 2020.

Senate Majority Leader: Chuck Schumer

AFP/File photo
Senator Chuck Schumer is strongly pro-Israel and opposes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement  (AFP/File photo)

More powerful than any single committee, if Democrats were to take the Senate this year, Mitch McConnell would step down as majority leader and likely be replaced by current minority leader Chuck Schumer.

One of the country's leading Democrats, Schumer voted against Haspel's nomination for CIA head, but for Pompeo's nomination for the position. He voted against Pompeo's nomination for secretary of state. 

Last year, Schumer rejected an agreement made between the United States and Turkey over Ankara's military incursion into Syria, calling the deal a "sham".

"The president's decision to reverse sanctions against Turkey for brutally attacking our Kurdish partners in exchange for a sham ceasefire seriously undermines the credibility of America's foreign policy and sends a dangerous message to our allies and adversaries alike that our word cannot be trusted," he said in a joint statement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

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Schumer quietly voted in favour of a bill to halt US support for the Saudi war against Yemen, but chose not to use his power in the Democratic Caucus to whip reluctant senators. 

Schumer was against the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, saying "to me, the very real risk that Iran will not moderate and will, instead, use the agreement to pursue its nefarious goals is too great".

Still, he has also opposed Trump's Iran policy, backing the war powers act in January that sought to restrict the president's ability to take military action against Iran without congressional approval.

A staunch Israel supporter, Schumer welcomed Trump's decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, calling it "long overdue".

He is a regular guest at the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, where he often makes remarks that spur fury amongst Palestinian rights advocates.

In 2018, he told AIPAC that Israel's settlements are not an impediment to peace; rather, he blamed the conflict on the fact that Palestinians do not believe in the Jewish bible.

"Of course, we say it's our land, the Torah says it, but they [Palestinians] don't believe in the Torah. So that's the reason there is not peace," he said. "They invent other reasons, but they do not believe in a Jewish state."