As the president threatens to upend the foreign policy order, Republicans are working to ensure that proper attention is paid to more traditional commitments.
WASHINGTON — President Trump threatens to upend the post-World War II foreign policy order, but Congress is working to ensure that American foreign policy remains rooted in the trans-Atlantic alliance against traditional rivals like Russia.
Republicans have been careful not to frame their foreign policy moves as a counterweight to the president, who has doled out insults to foreign leaders on Twitter, bailed out of international trade and climate accords and turned on Qatar, an important American ally, as a sponsor of terrorism.
But as the Republican efforts pile up, they are leaving a definite impression of advancing an anti-Trump foreign policy. Last week, after months of hand-wringing, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to strengthen sanctions against Russia. Senators also voted unanimously to affirm American support for the mutual defense doctrine articulated in Article 5 of the NATO charter.
It was a clear rebuke to Mr. Trump, who has waffled on his support for Article 5 since he was a candidate.
And on Tuesday, a measure that would have blocked part of a $500 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia — only weeks after Mr. Trump was received with adulation in the kingdom — had so much bipartisan support that Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence had to make a panicked scramble to defeat it. Four Republicans voted to block the sale, and Mr. Trump was saved by Democratic senators who backed him.
In the coming days, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will move after years of resistance to draft a new war authorization to fight the Islamic State, asserting more power over troop deployments as Mr. Trump publicly cedes that authority to the Pentagon.
Not least, the Trump administration’s budget request that would gut the State Department was met by an instant rebuke from Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, who won’t even consider it.
In the meantime, a number of senators have formed a kind of parallel operation to the State Department by visiting allies to assure them of America’s commitments.
“One of my goals as the leading Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is to recapture much of the Senate prerogatives on foreign policy,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee chairman. He added that the panel had “dissipated for a long time into a debating society.”
Congress has struggled with what to do about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and aggression in Eastern Europe since Mr. Trump was elected. Some early efforts at new sanctions on Russia were considered too tough by some Republicans. After the election, Mr. Corker waited for Mr. Tillerson, at Mr. Tillerson’s request, to attempt a relationship with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.
But Mr. Corker decided the effort was fruitless and called Mr. Tillerson from a secure location in the Capitol to let him know that he was proceeding with a strong Russia sanctions bill. That was not an option Mr. Tillerson preferred, Mr. Corker said in an interview.
“What went into passing that bill was incredibly intense,” Mr. Corker said. “Our staff worked around the clock to get us where we are, in a place where the election passions had dissolved into significant policy discussions.”
Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, agreed. “This is a very important moment for this Congress,” he said. “What we recognized as we were working on this is we were not really talking about President Trump, we were talking about American values. If you don’t say, ‘This is to counter Trump,’ even if you are in fact countering Trump, that’s how you get Republican partners.”
The bill — which still must clear the House after the 97-to-2 Senate vote — empowered Congress to block the president from reducing existing sanctions and added new ones in response to Russia’s support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Kremlin interference in last year’s election.
“It’s a significant rebuke to Trump,” said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “A bipartisan near-unanimous majority is asserting traditional foreign policy in the face of his unprecedented challenges to the basic norms of American global leadership.”
After Mr. Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Senators Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, and Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, led the effort to block the arms sale to the kingdom, a replay of a similar effort last year. The move gained far more steam this time, with growing concerns about the kingdom’s intervention in the civil war in Yemen that has led to many civilian casualties.
“I think that this completely un-nuanced alliance that this administration is constructing with Saudi Arabia has both sides of the aisle increasingly concerned,” Mr. Murphy said, noting the administration’s scramble to prevent passage of the measure. (Mr. Corker dismissed the effort as a “pound of flesh” moment aimed at embarrassing the president.)
Some foreign policy experts are skeptical about how much impact Congress can actually have in foreign policy, where the president has broad authority. “The rest of the world understands the U.S. enough to know that the president makes foreign policy, not his cabinet and not Congress,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The threat to the American-led world order is that the president will not work actively to sustain it. Congress can’t take the president’s place in that effort.”
Many lawmakers are trying. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, travels extensively around the world trying to soothe tensions. Mr. McCain, Mr. Corker and another Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, speak often with Mr. Trump and administration officials like Mr. Tillerson; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser for strategy; and Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and a top White House adviser.
All three men and others regularly issue public critiques of Mr. Trump’s statements and tweets, and occasionally his policy moves, as carrier pigeon-type messages of disquiet.
“My public comments are not directed at the public,” said Mr. Corker, who once said the administration was in a “downward spiral.” “I’ve got to stop that because sometimes people back home don’t realize my real audience is the White House and that it is being done to influence the policy of our nation.”
This has not harmed his access to the Trump world. “They want input,” he said. “They don’t always comes to the conclusions that I would like for them to come to, but I cannot complain one iota about the ability to give it.”