This Week in Washington - December 17, 2010

    17 December 2010

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    On Wednesday, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a tax package agreement to extend expiring tax cuts and jobless benefits. A day later, the House followed suit after rejecting a liberal Democratic amendment related to the estate tax structure. President Obama signed the $858 billion measure Friday afternoon, stressing the importance of the compromise law’s impact on the middle class.

    A Fiscal Year 2011 omnibus spending measure was unveiled in the Senate this week; however, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) decided to pull the bill late Thursday after a backlash from Republicans and some Democrats against earmarks contained in the bill. Therefore, a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) into February is more likely to emerge. Meanwhile, with funding due to expire this weekend, the House and Senate passed another short-term CR that runs through next Tuesday to allow more time for discussions. Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) are quickly working to develop and pass the February CR in the Senate before Tuesday.

    The House voted 250-175 Wednesday to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy as a stand-alone bill. The measure is expected to pass in the Senate when Reid brings it up for a vote on Saturday, after securing support from Republican Senators Scott Brown (Massachusetts) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). After removing DADT from the annual defense authorization bill and including language to block the transfer of detainees for one year from the military’s prison in Guantanamo Bay to the United States, the House passed the authorization bill (341-48). The measure, which allows for approximately $725 billion in programs at the Defense and Energy departments, could be taken up in the Senate this weekend and cleared by unanimous consent.

    House Democrats and Republicans continued work this week on setting committee assignments for the 112th Congress. The incoming Republican leadership announced across-the-board reductions in committee sizes, representing an overall decrease in committee seats by nearly 10 percent, causing many Members to scramble to keep their position on the most exclusive committees. Leadership ratios for each committee will remain relatively unchanged.

    President Obama held several working sessions this week to smooth over his strained relationships within the business and labor communities. First, he held a meeting Wednesday with 20 corporate executives to discuss free trade, fiscal discipline, regulatory relief, as well as investment in innovation and American competition. Then, on Friday, the President met with nearly a dozen leaders from the country's largest labor unions. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis also attended the meeting, which was focused on jobs and the economy.

    On Monday, a U.S. District Court judge in Virginia struck down the centerpiece of President Obama’s health care reform law, passed earlier this year, ruling that the individual health insurance mandate “exceeds the constitutional boundaries of congressional power.” The case was filed by the Commonwealth of Virginia – one of many filed by state governments against the federal government’s health coverage mandate – and will likely be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court after appeals at the circuit court level.

    Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday the Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Orleans against nine defendants for “violations of federal safety and operational regulations” related to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico resulting from the April 20th explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    On Monday, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke died of surgery complications, just before the Friday release of the Afghanistan-Pakistan annual review. President For more information, Obama stated the review reflected progress in the region, including the weakening of al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership in Pakistan and the arresting of the momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Earlier in the week, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to delay implementing a ban on private security firms.

    This week, the Senate began debating the New START Treaty. On Wednesday, the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denounced Senator Jim DeMint’s (R-South Carolina) desire to “waste 12 hours” reading aloud the entire text of the treaty. The White House also abandoned its efforts to work with Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) on ratifying the treaty, after Senator Kyl and 11 other Republican Senators pledged to oppose the move to finish the treaty this year. Friday, Republican Senators John McCain (Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) threatened to withdraw their support for New START if Senate Democrats proceed with their plans to hold Saturday cloture votes on repealing DADT and the immigration measure – The Dream Act.

    With approval from the Administration, this week, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (D) headed to Pyongyang to get North Korean officials to “calm down a bit.” Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg met Thursday with senior Chinese officials in Beijing, including State Councilor Dai Bingguo, to discuss the Korean Peninsula tension. This weekend, South Korea is planning military exercises that North Korea threatened retaliation if the exercises continue.

    Greater Middle East. Gaza Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah stated Tuesday that Hamas will never recognize Israel, backtracking from an earlier statement that the group would accept a Palestinian state with 1967 borders. On Wednesday, President Obama condemned a terrorist attack on a mosque in Chabahar, Iran. Vice President Biden focused on Iraq this week, by: (1) meeting Tuesday with U.S. Commander in Iraq General Lloyd Austin III, (2) chairing a U.N. Security Council High-Level Meeting on Iraq Wednesday, (3) calling Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani to discuss progress on the formation of a government Thursday, and (4) chairing his monthly Principals meeting on Iraq Friday.

    On Wednesday, Secretary Clinton announced the release of the much anticipated Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and stated “[t]he QDDR is a blueprint” for making the State Department and USAID “more nimble, more effective, and more accountable.” Secretary Clinton acknowledged the goals of reforming the State Department may be difficult to achieve with an incoming Congress that is skeptical of foreign aid funding and is looking for ways to trim government spending.

    Secretary Hilda Solis released three Labor Department reports Wednesday: (1) 2009 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (“WFCL”) report, (2) the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor and (3) the Executive Order 13126 Initial Determination List. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) stated he hopes the WFCL report will be used by the President and Administration to inform bilateral relationships.

    On Monday, Secretary Clinton traveled to Quebec, Canada, and attended the North American Foreign Ministers Meeting, a trilateral meeting with her counterparts from Canada and Mexico. Back in Washington Tuesday, the Secretary held a bilateral meeting with South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and signed a President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief Partnership Framework.

    Thursday, the State Department confirmed a rocket-propelled grenade struck the outer perimeter of the U.S. Embassy in Côte d’Ivoire. The United States urged Ivorians to remain calm as the international community continues to work on getting President Gbagbo to step aside.

    President Obama called and congratulated President Felipe Calderon of Mexico for his leadership at the U.N. Cancun Climate Change Conference that resulted in an agreement that builds upon core elements of the Copenhagen Accord and establishes a new Green Climate Fund to reduce deforestation in developing countries. Last Saturday, President Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to discuss the importance of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship and reaffirmed the leaked cables would not impact the relationship. This week, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was granted bail in the United Kingdom, despite Sweden’s objections.