This Week in Washington - December 30, 2010

    3 January 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    The U.S. Senate and House are adjourned until the new Congress convenes January 5th.

    The state of Alaska officially certified Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski as the winner in her reelection race. The Senator is expected to retain her post as Ranking Member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the 112th Congress.

    House Republicans made several announcements regarding Committee assignments in the 112th Congress this week. Representative Doc Hastings  (R-Washington), incoming chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, announced Wednesday he will add a new subcommittee entitled “Indian and Alaska Native Affairs,” which will focus on “developing tribal economies and reducing federal obstacles that block tribal job creation and the production of new wealth and investments on Indian lands.” Additionally, Speaker-elect John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that Alabama Republican Jo Bonner will be the next chairman of the House Ethics Committee.

    The U.S. Constitution will have a prominent public role in the new House of Representatives come January, according to the new rules package unveiled by House Republican leaders last week. In addition to House Members reading the entire Constitution aloud on January 6th, the rules to be instituted on January 5th will require that every introduced bill contain a statement by the lead sponsor citing authority in the Constitution to enact the proposed legislation. Many Tea Party activists and some liberal and conservative constitutional scholars applauded the move.

    The Senate Ethics Committee dismissed a complaint alleging that outgoing Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) took part in an improper real estate deal, citing insufficient evidence of the Senator’s wrongdoing. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating former Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell (R-Delaware) for allegedly using campaign donations for personal expenditures.

    A White House official stated this week that the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 budget request to Congress will be postponed by approximately one week, due to the Senate’s delay in confirming new Office of Management and Budget director Jacob Lew, and the lag in final budget decisions for FY 2011. The White House is expected to release the FY 2012 budget the week of February 14, 2011.

    Tuesday, Standard & Poor's released its Case-Shiller home-price index, a leading measure of U.S. home prices. The report revealed a decline in annual average home prices in 16 of the 20 major metropolitan statistical areas. The average national price of a single-family home fell 1.3 percent from September to October, which represented the third straight month of declines. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the number of people applying for unemployment benefits last week dropped by 34,000 to 388,000, the smallest number since July 2008.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    This week, President Obama announced six recess appointments, skirting the usual U.S. Senate confirmation process. The appointments included  four Ambassadors: Robert S. Ford, who is the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005, despite some Congressional opposition to the move, particularly among Republicans; Mathew Bryza (Azerbaijan) and Francis J. Ricciardone Jr. (Turkey), who had both faced resistance from Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), and other Members critical of their positions on regional security matters involving neighboring Armenia; Norman Eisen (Czech Republic), who had faced criticism from Republican Senators Jim Risch of Idaho and John Barrasso of Wyoming relating to his role as a top Obama White House ethics official. Also appointed were James M. Cole as Deputy Attorney General, who had faced Republican opposition for months, and William Boarman as the Public Printer of the United States. With the recess appointments, these individuals will serve until the end of the next session of the Senate in late 2011, unless the Senate votes to confirm them in the interim.

    The White House and Secretary of State Clinton criticized Russia Monday over the verdict in the second trial of businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a prominent critic of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and his associate Platon Lebedev. The Secretary stated the “charges of embezzlement and money laundering raises serious questions about selective prosecution – and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations.” The White House stated “we will continue to monitor closely the next stages in this case, including the fairness of the sentences and the review by higher courts during the appeals process.” Russia responded that “attempts to apply pressure on the court are unacceptable.”

    Côte d’Ivoire presidential crisis. On Wednesday, the State Department acknowledged the ongoing efforts by Economic Community Of West African States (“ECOWAS”) to peacefully resolve the crisis. The United States has imposed travel restrictions on Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent alleged to have lost the recent presidential elections, and other top government officials. ECOWAS members, President Thomas Yayi Boni of Benin, President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde, and President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, met with and continued to pressure Mr. Gbagbo to step aside, although ECOWAS has yet to deploy a previously-announced peacekeeping force. The State Department also condemned Wednesday’s attack on UNOCI peacekeepers that took place in Youpougan, and called on Mr. Gbagbo to control his supporters. Also, a small Department of Defense team surveyed the damage at U.S. Embassy Abidjan sustained from the grenade attack.

    South Korean President Lee Myung-bak indicated Wednesday his desire to revitalize the longdormant Six Party talks as the necessary means to coax North Korea towards denuclearization. South Korea, Japan and the United States maintain that Pyongyang must affirm its promises on denuclearization promises for the talks to produce results. However, President Lee also recently told South Korean troops they would need to meet further aggression from North Korea with a “powerful counterattack.”

    Secretary Clinton will depart Washington January 1st to attend the inauguration of President-elect Dilma Rousseff, who will become the first female president of Brazil.

    Administration officials say they have made it easier to add individuals' names to the U.S. terrorist watch list, following heavy criticism from Congress for not having added Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Detroit-bound airline bomber, to the watch list last year. Now a singlesource tip, as long as it is deemed credible, can result in a name being added to the list.

    Last Sunday, President Obama called King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and congratulated him on the progress he has made toward a full recovery from surgery. King Abdullah congratulated the President on the recent Senate approval of the new START Treaty. Both also reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship.

    Last Saturday, President Obama condemned “the outrageous terrorist attack” in Khar, Pakistan. The President further stated, “[k]illing innocent civilians outside a World Food Program distribution point is an affront to the people of Pakistan,” and reaffirmed the “United States stands with the people of Pakistan in this difficult time.”