AUSTIN -- After meeting with leaders in Poland and Lithuania last week, Central Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX 35) says the former Soviet bloc states are worried by Russia's agitation in Ukraine.
"They're very concerned that the same thing could happen in their neighborhood," said Doggett, who joined House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific Chair Steve Chabot (R-OH) on the trip, which coincided with anniversary celebrations of the Solidarity movement in Poland and the Baltic Way demonstrations in Lithuania.
Now NATO allies, both nations see the U.S. as key to making sure the conflict doesn't spread. American forces have engaged in training exercises there as part of a rotating presence, and a permanent base has been requested. Doggett cautions against establishing a permanent forward presence, emphasizing instead work underway on an agreement with other European states to tie trade relations closer together.
"Just seeing anyone with a U.S. uniform on there is something that they very much value, along with our economic presence," said Doggett.
"We have to have our presence there, but we also have to do it in coordination with our allies," said Doggett. "And that's true in the Middle East as well. There's not a military-only solution in either of those areas."
As the U.S. uses air strikes and special forces to fight Islamic State insurgents in Iraq, some in Congress are urging President Barack Obama to consider expanding American involvement with a large commitment of troops. Doggett says the president's response has been "about right" thus far, but opposes another large-scale conflict in Iraq. While calling the Islamic State "one of the most outrageous, deplorable terrorist groups with which we've dealt," Doggett notes the organization did not formally exist prior to U.S. involvement.
Doggett says the president should not move independently of Congress before increasing U.S. ground presence, and any escalation must be preceded by a thorough debate. The congressman contends the threat posed by Islamic State activity in Iraq is far less worrisome that of U.S. and European citizens radicalized in the Middle East returning to their home countries to carry out acts of domestic terrorism.
"There are different ways to deal with that problem than putting thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in some go-it-alone invasion of the type that we made such a serious effort on previously," said Doggett.
Back in his district that stretches from Austin to San Antonio, Doggett says many constituents have voiced concern over the crisis of Central American children being trafficked across the southern border into the Rio Grande Valley.
House Republicans ended July with a bill intended to address the problem. The $659 million measure fell far short of the $3.7 billion requested by the president, and contained changes to a 2008 child trafficking law blamed for slowing down processing.
The 2008 law has become a sticking point in negotiations to create a bill that could clear both chambers. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has already warned the Republican measure is dead on arrival in the upper chamber, and the president has threatened a veto even were it to pass.
Republicans fault the 2008 law, which requires mandatory legal hearings for children smuggled from non-contiguous countries, for encouraging smuggling and leading to the current backlog of cases. On the other hand, Democrats worry it will leave trafficked children more vulnerable if changed.
"I'm very concerned that to erode the protections of the 2008 act will lead to child abuse, to trafficking, to the murder of some of these children," said Doggett. Asked whether there may be a bipartisan solution to expedite processing while keeping critical protections in place, Doggett suggested it may be possible, but the timing is not encouraging.
While a solution to the border crisis will be top on his to-do list when Congress returns in September, Doggett worries upcoming elections could hamper progress. He says many members of both parties would rather wait until after the 2014 midterms to take up difficult legislation.
"I don't believe we can take every one of these children or every person who wants to come to the United States," Doggett said. "I think we need a streamlined immigration system that responds and a change in our overall immigration laws to recognize the reality of the situation. Whether we can reach agreement in the coming weeks remains to be seen. We will go back and we only have nine legislative days left before the election."
Of course, he added, that wouldn't be anything new.
"Most people can't tell that we are not in Washington because so little was being done when we were in Washington," said Doggett.
The longtime Austin Democrat says the upcoming continuing resolution to continue funding the federal government could give lawmakers a vehicle to address the border crisis and other issues, but Republican threats of another standoff could make passing the budget measure itself a complicated process.
"It is essential that we avoid another government shutdown," said Doggett, referring to the strategy championed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in 2013 that led to a two-week stalemate. "I don't believe that even the Republicans want to put the country on 'Cruz control' again."
For the rest of the recess, Doggett says his focus is on district issues, such as expanding the San Marcos airport, redevelopment and relief efforts in the Austin Dove Springs neighborhood flooded last October, an upcoming immigration forum in San Antonio and meetings to address health care and retirement.