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Ayotte and the Future of Conservative Foreign Policy

As Max wrote earlier, there is a growing divide in the Republican Party with regard to foreign aid that reflects a broader philosophical divergence on the right. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are both Tea Party-generation fiscal conservatives, but in the past they have approached foreign policy from different angles–Rubio from an interventionist point of view and Paul from a pro-disengagement perspective. So it was surely a victory for Paul when Rubio took to the floor of the Senate last week to support Paul’s 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination over the use of drones.

But one senator who wasn’t at the filibuster was New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte. Like Rubio, Ayotte is a fiscal conservative who has made her name on foreign affairs. Unlike Rubio, however, Ayotte can’t so easily distance herself from the party’s old guard, which has been openly feuding with Paul since the filibuster. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have sought to portray Paul as outside the mainstream–a “wacko bird,” in McCain’s unfortunate phrasing–further alienating the pair from the party’s conservative base, which rallied to Paul’s defense during the filibuster. McCain and Graham have also been mentors to Ayotte, who seems to have replaced former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in the “three amigos.” The Hill today takes a look at Ayotte’s predicament:

Ayotte agrees with McCain and Graham on U.S. drone policies, though she didn’t take part in their attack on Paul.

“He and I have a different viewpoint,” Ayotte told The Hill. “I certainly respect Sen. Paul for standing up for what he believes in, but I also very much understand and appreciate Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham’s views that they expressed on the underlying policy.”

Ayotte has built up a fiscally conservative record in the Senate — she has a 92 percent rating from the conservative Club For Growth, ninth highest among senators who served in 2012. She’s a featured speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this weekend (her picture is alongside Paul’s on a promotional flyer).

Though she gets less attention than Rubio, who is out in front on the immigration issue as well, how Ayotte navigates these two constituencies is likely to be quite consequential for the GOP’s stand on foreign policy going forward. And it may not be as easy as staking out positions popular with the base; as the Hill notes, instead of appearing at Paul’s filibuster Ayotte was taking part in the president’s “dinner diplomacy”–along with McCain and Graham. The optics were enough to draw the ire of conservatives.

Ayotte’s significance on foreign policy is due in part to the fact that she doesn’t have Rubio’s stature as a national figure. Though Ayotte was mentioned often as a possible vice presidential choice for Mitt Romney last year, she is not considered to be one of the young conservatives leaning toward a presidential run in 2016. That means she either ends up on the ticket as vice presidential nominee or she stays in the Senate (providing she wins reelection in 2016), where she will presumably take an expanding role in shaping foreign-policy legislation.

Ayotte was outspoken in her condemnation of the Obama administration in the wake of the Benghazi terror attack and Susan Rice’s time in the spotlight as a possible secretary of state nominee, for which Ayotte earned plaudits from conservatives who wanted their congressional delegations to hold the administration accountable. But she also opposed the defense cuts in the sequester, and wants to see them reversed. That’s important, because Ayotte sits not only on the powerful Armed Services Committee but is also the ranking Republican on a subcommittee that will have influence over how the sequester military cuts are administered. As the New Hampshire-based Daily Democrat reported:

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over military resources and training, as well as depots and shipyards, business management and contracting oversight, and energy security issues….

Ayotte also served as ranking member of the subcommittee last year. Ayotte said she hopes to identify efficiencies and savings in the Pentagon’s budget and guard against “irresponsible cuts” that would leave troops and defense suppliers “less prepared.”

Ayotte, Graham, and McCain together hold the ranking GOP spots on half the Armed Services subcommittees, and McCain is also on the Foreign Affairs Committee (along with Rubio and Paul). Ayotte has been a proponent of arming the rebels in Syria, expressed concern about a too-hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, and has criticized calls to eliminate foreign aid as “penny wise and pound foolish in terms of protecting our own country.”

The media spotlight, for the next few years at least, will likely stay focused on Rubio and Paul. But Ayotte’s position in the Senate as a bridge between the old guard and the young guns may be just as much an indication of how much of a home conservative internationalism will have in the next generation of Republican leadership.

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