This Week in Washington - January 28, 2011

    31 January 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    The Senate returned this week and set the ratio of Democrats to Republicans and individual Member assignments on its committees. The House was also in session but is now in recess until February 8th.

    State of the Union (SOTU) Address. Many Members of Congress agreed to a bipartisan seating arrangement for the event. Members reserved an empty seat in honor of the recovering Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords(D-Arizona). President Obama called  for overhauling the tax code, significant government reorganization, and investment in innovation, while freezing non-security spending over the next five years. In the official Republican response, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) emphasized the importance of creating jobs while reducing the  deficit. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) also delivered a rebuttal to the President, on behalf of the Tea Party Caucus.

    Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) increased its projection for the Fiscal 2011 federal deficit, estimating the new figure will reach $1.48 trillion. Primarily a result of recent tax cuts and a still-fragile economy, the new estimate represents an all-time high and would account for 9.8 percent of the GDP. In response to the Spending Reduction Act of 2011, introduced by House Republicans Monday, Senate Democrats released a report Wednesday detailing the $1 trillion deficit increase and over one million job losses they anticipate would result from the proposal. The Commerce Department reported Friday the U.S. economy grew faster in the last quarter of 2010 than it had since the first quarter, with gross domestic product expanding at a 3.2 percent annual rate. Still, jobless claims rose last week, up 51,000 from the week before.

    Senate leaders this week reached agreement on a rules package, which includes eliminating secret holds, waiving the forced reading of amendments already publicly available, and endorsing legislation to exempt approximately one-third of all nominations from the Senate confirmation process. The first two items passed the full Senate late Thursday night. The third will be considered by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at a later date. Additionally, while an attempt to amend the filibuster was rejected, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) did agree to reduce use of the filibuster on motions to proceed.

    The Senate Tea Party Caucus held its inaugural meeting Thursday, with four Senators participating: Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas). Notably missing were several other Republican Senators, including freshmen Marco Rubio (Florida), Patrick Toomey (Pennsylvania), and Ron Johnson (Wisconsin), who received tea party support during their respective campaigns but who represent political “swing states”.

    House Republicans began a series of hearings this week to critique the healthcare reform law. President Obama and Congressional Democrats stepped up efforts to promote the healthcare law, with Senate Democrats announcing a series of hearings on the law’s benefits.

    White House Turnover and Nominations. This week, President Obama announced his intention to nominate: David Cohen to be Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Crimes; and Donald Verrilli, Jr., to be Solicitor General (Justice Department). Thursday, the President also announced Jay Carney will be the next White House Press Secretary. Carol Browner announced Monday she would step down as President Obama’s adviser on climate and energy policy.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    Arab and European Protests. In the SOTU address, President Obama affirmed “[t]he United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” Demonstrations in Egypt this week caused Secretary Clinton to urge the Egyptian Government to exercise restraint, engage with Egyptian people, and embrace reform. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) separately called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to hold free and fair elections this year. Meanwhile, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed elBaradei of Egypt was arrested while participating in an opposition rally. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday afternoon legitimate grievances need to be addressed in Egypt and the United States continues to monitor the demonstrations across the region. President Obama spoke with President Hosni Mubarak and late Friday called for Egypt's Government to respect the rights of its people. This week, demonstrators also took to the streets to protest the government in Yemen, one of the poorest Middle Eastern countries and, despite President Saleh’s opposition, a base of operations for al-Qaeda.

    In Jordan Friday, demonstrators protested high food prices and unemployment. On Tuesday, the Lebanese Parliament approved Hezbollah-backed nominee Najib Mikati as Prime Minister, and Sunni lawmakers called for a “day of rage” in response. Secretary Clinton said Wednesday the United States will judge the new Lebanese Government by its actions, including whether it supports the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Demonstrations also took place in the Balkans, where three protestors died in Albania last Friday during a confrontation between opposition protestors and police. The State Department and European Union urged all parties to exercise restraint, leading Prime Minister Sali Berisha to cancel a rally for Saturday, while Socialist opposition leader Edi Rama led a largely incident-free march on Friday.

    Greater Middle East. Last Sunday, Al Jazeera published more than 1,600 Palestinian papers detailing negotiations among the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the United States, which the State Department admitted Monday may complicate ongoing negotiations. This week, Israel and Turkey released differing reports on last year’s Gaza flotilla incident, on which the State Department said Wednesday the United States supports the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Inquiry. Last Saturday, the P5+1 talks failed to reach an agreement, after Iran's insistence of two unattainable preconditions: (1) the U.N. Security Council lift sanctions, and (2) recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium. On Wednesday, Secretary Clinton welcomed the inauguration of the Afghan Parliament.

    President Obama and Secretary Clinton condemned Monday’s terrorist attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. In conversations with President  Dmitry Medvedev, President Obama expressed condolences to the Russian people and congratulated the  ussian State Duma, which voted 350-96, for the passage of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

    Thursday, commenting on the murder of David Kato, a gay advocate in Uganda, and the deaths of five lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community members in Honduras, President Obama said “[i]t is essential that the Governments of Uganda and Honduras investigate these killings and hold the perpetrators accountable.”

    In the SOTU address, President Obama announced he will travel to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador in March. The President also emphasized new agreements signed with India and China that he says will increase U.S. exports and create more domestic jobs. The President characterized the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) as having “unprecedented support from business and labor; Democrats and Republicans” and urged Congress to pass it soon. Earlier in the day, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (RMichigan) held a hearing on pending U.S. Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with Korea, Panama and Colombia. While Committee Republicans emphasized the costs to the U.S. economy of inaction on all the FTAs, Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-Michigan) stressed his support for the Korea agreement. Friday, Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton met with Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzón to discuss recovery efforts underway from recent floods, the recent disaster that killed 21 miners in Colombia, and the Obama Administration’s commitment to concluding the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

    Secretary Clinton travelled to Mexico Monday to meet with Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa and discussed regulatory coordination, immigration issues, and renewable energy sources. Countering narcotics, combating money laundering and preventing illicit arms sales also were discussed. In Washington Tuesday, Secretary Clinton held a bilateral meeting with Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez and discussed NATO, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Also on Tuesday, the Secretary met with Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev to discuss cooperation on nonproliferation and U.S. concern about an impending referendum to extend President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s term to 2020. Wednesday, Secretary Clinton met with Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti to discuss the aftermath of the South Sudan referendum and Sudan’s adherence to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The Secretary also held a bilateral meeting with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, which included a discussion of Jordan’s economic improvements. On Thursday, Secretary Clinton swore-in U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza, who received a recess appointment. This week, President Obama resubmitted to Congress, for full-term appointments, the following U.S. Ambassador nominees: Matthew Bryza (Azerbaijan), Frank Ricciardone (Turkey), Robert Ford (Syria), Norman Eisen (Czech Republic), George Krol (Uzbekistan) and David Carden (Association of the Southeast Asian Nations). Friday, Secretary Clinton met with Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon.

    National Security Advisor Tom Donilon welcomed a delegation Wednesday, led by President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, from the Economic Community of West African States to discuss their shared vision of seeing former Cote d’Ivôire President Laurent Gbagbo cede power peacefully.