This Week in Washington - January 7, 2011

    7 January 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    The 112th Congress convened Wednesday. Members of Congress were sworn in, including Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio) as the 53rd Speaker of the House. The House also adopted revisions to its rules, as proposed by Republican leaders in December. After beginning negotiations on a proposed rule change led by Senators Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) governing the use of filibusters, the Senate is now in recess until January 24th.

    Thursday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warned the government will hit its debt limit as early as March 31st. Meanwhile, Congress will have to address how to fund the government for the rest of Fiscal Year 2011, after a stopgap funding measure expires March 4th. The House repealed a mechanism known as the “Gephardt Rule” earlier this week, which in the past made it easier for the House to raise the federal debt limit by avoiding a direct vote on it. The debt now stands at $13.95 trillion, just $335 billion below the current debt limit of $14.29 trillion. Republicans maintain that spending needs to be tied to the debt limit, but acknowledge they will have to avoid a debt default that would roil financial markets and bring the government to a halt.

    Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated “not every defense program is necessary, not every defense dollar is sacred and well-spent” when announcing his proposal to cut billions of dollars from defense programs. The plan includes $178 billion identified by the Department in program reductions over five years, including delaying or terminating several high-profile weapons systems and reducing both private contractors and civilian and uniformed Pentagon personnel. $100 billion of the savings will be redirected to spending on other defense programs. Despite many Republicans advocating for spending cuts, many Republican lawmakers disagreed with the top-line reduction. Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California), the new Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the proposed cuts in a time of war were not a good idea. However, Speaker Boehner suggested cuts in the defense budget remain a possibility.

    Also, new House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-California) committed to leading six major investigations over the next three months, including: (1) the “WikiLeaks” release of classified diplomatic cables; (2) recalls at the Food and Drug Administration; (3) the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the foreclosure crisis; (4) the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's failure to identify the origins of the  meltdown; (5) the effect of business regulations on the economy; and (6) alleged corruption in Afghanistan.

    The House Rules Committee voted 6-4 vote to approve a closed rule to provide for floor consideration of a bill (H.R. 2) to repeal the health care reform law (P.L. 111-148, P.L. 111-152), setting up a vote in the House on January 12th. The rule allows no Democratic amendments to the health care repeal bill, leading Democrats to accuse House GOP leaders of reneging on their pledge for a larger minority voice. Senate Democrats announced a series of hearings on the health care issue. This week, a Gallup poll revealed that 46 percent of Americans are in favor of repealing the law, while 40 percent want it to remain in place.

    White House Turnover. This week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced he will leave in February and join President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Monday, Vice President Joe Biden wished his Chief of Staff Ron Klain “best of luck” after Klain announced his intentions to take a position in the private sector. On Thursday, President Obama named William Daley, a former Clinton Administration Commerce Secretary, as his new Chief of Staff. Friday, President Obama announced changes to his economic team: former Clinton adviser Gene Sperling will be the new Director of the National Economic Council (NEC); Jason Furman will be the Principal Deputy Director of the NEC; Katharine G. Abraham was nominated to the Council of Economic Advisers; and Heather Higginbottom was nominated as the Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Tina Tchen was also named this week as the first lady's Chief of Staff.

    The Labor Department reported Friday the unemployment rate for December had fallen to 9.4 percent, the lowest since May 2009. While the economy added 103,000 jobs in December, a significant percentage of these positions are likely temporary seasonal hires.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    National Security Advisor (NSA) Tom Donilon met Tuesday with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in the White House to discuss preparations for President Hu Jintao’s upcoming visit. NSA Donilon stressed the importance in reducing imbalances in both the global economy as well as in U.S.-China trade. Also discussed were nonproliferation objectives with respect to Iran and North Korea and the January 9th Southern Sudan referendum. President Obama joined the meeting and reaffirmed his commitment to the bilateral relationship. Wednesday, Secretary Clinton met with Foreign Minister Yang. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will travel to China and then on to Japan this weekend. Secretary Gates will resume the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship, suspended by Beijing in early 2010. This comes as many military analysts are reportedly “shocked” by China’s advancements in stealth fighter jet and anti-ship technology.

    Secretary Clinton attended the inauguration of President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and was back in Washington Monday to swear-in Thomas Nides as Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources. Thursday, Secretary Clinton met with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara to discuss regional and bilateral security issues, as well as preparations for Prime Minister Kan’s upcoming visit to the United States this spring. Vice President Biden met with Foreign Minister Maehara and reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Secretary also met Belarusian and Belarusian American human rights activists Thursday and continued to call for an end to repression of the opposition, the media, and the civil society in Belarus.  Tuesday, Secretary Clinton and E.U. High Representative Lady Catherine Ashton jointly expressed regret over Belarus’ decision to terminate the Mission of the OSCE Office in Minsk.

    Leading up to the January 9th referendum in Southern Sudan that could result in Southern Sudan's emergence as an independent country, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (DMA) arrived in Sudan Tuesday for the week. U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration departed Washington Thursday for Sudan to observe the Southern Sudan referendum. While in Sudan, Gration will be joined by Ambassador Dane Smith, the Administration’s newly-appointed Senior Advisor on Darfur, to visit that region.

    Monday, the media again focused on reported fraud and waste in Afghanistan, where initially U.Sfunded infrastructure projects are now under Afghan stewardship. This week, Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), and Susan Collins (R-Maine) continued to press the White House to fire Arnie Fields, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR is charged with overseeing tens of billions of dollars in Afghanistan reconstruction contracts managed by both the State and Defense Departments.

    Côte d’Ivoire presidential crisis. Thursday, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) leveled financial sanctions against former Cote d’Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo and his wife, Simone Gbagbo. The sanctions were also extend to three of Laurent Gbagbo’s senior advisors.

    Thursday, the State Department admitted having warned hundreds of human rights activists, foreign government officials and business individuals identified in leaked diplomatic cables of potential threats to their safety. The Department helped to move a handful of them to safer locations.

    This week, the Administration announced the fourth round of U.S.-Cuba migration talks will take place January 12th, 2011 in Havana. This weekend, Secretary Clinton departs Washington for the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela is traveling to Argentina and Chile next week. Next Monday, President Obama will welcome President Nicolas Sarkozy of France to the White House.