This Week in Washington - February 11, 2011

    11 February 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Budget and Appropriations. In anticipation of President Obama’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Budget proposal to be released on Monday, Congressional committees began to announce hearings that will focus on testimony by Cabinet officials defending the proposed budget. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans continue to try to reach $100 billion in proposed cuts for remaining FY2011 spending. While Senate Democratic leaders stated this week they are open to “reasonable” budget cuts, they called those proposed by the House “extreme.” Senate Democrats are looking to a series of short-term continuing resolutions to avoid a government shutdown when the current stopgap measure expires March 4th. On Tuesday, Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Tom Carper (D-Delaware) announced legislation to strengthen the President’s rescission power over discretionary spending items. President Obama supported a similar provision in his FY2011 budget proposal.

    Monday, in a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, President Obama reached out to the business community, offering to reduce unnecessary regulations while urging investments to help address the nation’s nine percent unemployment rate. Tuesday, Vice President Biden travelled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to announce a six-year plan to build a national high-speed rail network, an effort targeted for substantial budget cuts by Republicans.

    In accordance with the financial reform law (P.L. 111-203), the White House delivered a report to Congress Friday detailing options for reforming the housing market, particularly Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Some Republicans continue to advocate for the removal of an active government role in the housing sector, but the White House report instead favors targeted government intervention.

    House Activity. The House Foreign Affairs Committee met this week to establish subcommittee rosters. The House Republican leadership fell seven votes short on Tuesday to extend provisions of the Patriot Act, after 26 Republicans voted against the measure. On Wednesday, Republicans failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to pass a bill to withhold $179 million in funding to the United Nations until the organization returns the same amount in overpayments by the United States. Most Democrats voted against the measure, claiming the funds were already obligated. On Friday, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee approved a bill, sponsored by Representative Joe Pitts (R-Pennsylvania), to prohibit federal funding for any health insurance plans under the 2010 health care reform law that offer abortion services.

    In the Senate, the Finance Committee voted Tuesday to approve a tax increase on general aviation as a way to help fund modernization of the nation's aviation system. The Senate is scheduled to resume consideration of the long-stalled Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill on Monday.

    Congressional Turnover. On Tuesday, California Representative Jane Harman, a Blue Dog Democrat, announced she will resign to become the new head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. California Governor Jerry Brown (D) has scheduled a June special election to fill the solidly Democratic West Los Angeles Congressional seat. Wednesday, New York Representative Chris Lee (R) abruptly resigned after allegations surfaced of extramarital Internet communications with an unidentified woman. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has the power to call a special election for the Republican-leaning Western New York Congressional seat. First-term Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) announced Wednesday his intention not to seek re-election in 2012. Former Senator George Allen (R-Virginia) is attempting to reclaim the seat. A day later, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) announced he would not seek re-election in 2012. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) immediately announced their intentions to run for the Whip position.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    Egyptian Revolution Chronology. Since last Friday, President Obama has been in contact with several foreign leaders as the crisis continued in Egypt, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On Tuesday, President Obama spoke with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia about the U.S. belief in the need for an orderly transition in Egypt and reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to peace and security in the region. Vice President Biden called Vice President Suleiman Tuesday to stress the need to restrain the Ministry of Interior’s conduct towards protestors and foreign journalists; immediately rescind the emergency law; and broaden the national dialogue to include opposition members. Early Thursday, in testimony before Congress, CIA Director Leon Panetta acknowledged the difficulty of predicting events in the Egyptian crisis and stated there was a “strong likelihood” President Mubarak would resign. President Obama said Thursday afternoon the United States supported “an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt.” In turn, President Mubarak stated he would remain President until the September elections. President Obama responded late Thursday night by calling on the Egyptian government to clarify the transition of authority and ensure a transition to democracy. In a turnabout Friday, President Mubarak resigned and handed over control of the government to the military’s higher council. President Mubarak has since departed Cairo, causing protesters in Tahrir Square to celebrate and chant, “Egypt is free!” Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei immediately called for the military to share power. President Obama said Egyptians “changed their country, and in doing so, they changed the world.” President Obama further said “[t]he United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt” and offered assistance. After previous statements declaring his opposition to foreign aid to Egypt during its political unrest, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State-Foreign Operations Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) clarified his position this week and will instead wait to see how the process develops.

    Related Middle East Developments. Last Sunday, the closed-door trial began for three Americans detained and allegedly charged with spying in Iran. Friday, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor criticized Iran for jamming foreign broadcasts from Egypt. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, on his last day in his position, also condemned Iran for arrests as events unfolded in Egypt. On Wednesday, Secretaries Clinton (State) and Gates (Defense) and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon met with Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. Topics included the United States’ “unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security”; developments in Egypt; moving forward on the Middle East Peace negotiations; and Iran. At the State Department Wednesday, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace Senator George Mitchell met with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

    Secretary Clinton attended the Munich Security Conference last Saturday and exchanged the instruments of treaty ratification with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns visited Russia Wednesday and Thursday to discuss bilateral issues, particularly NATO’s intentions for a European missile defense system. Washington also sent Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Rose Gottemoeller to Poland and the Baltic States to reassure them that U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense would not be at the expense of their security.

    On Wednesday, South Korea reported the military-to-military talks with North Korea had collapsed, after North Korea continued its stance of not taking responsibility for the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Chenoan, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong, a South Korean island. The State Department characterized the outcome as a “missed opportunity.”

    Also Wednesday, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-Michigan) pressed U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Kirk on the path forward for pending free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. USTR Kirk affirmed the Administration intends to submit the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement to Congress for a possible spring vote, which was welcomed by Republicans and some Democrats. Chairman Camp indicated there may be support for creating a stand-alone bill for the extension of the Andean Trade Development Act, splitting it off from the stalled Trade Adjustment Assistance program bill. Meanwhile, Secretary Clinton held a bilateral meeting with Panamanian Vice President and Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Varela Thursday to discuss the Free Trade Agreement and regional and immigration issues.

    President Obama pledged Monday the United States will recognize Southern Sudan’s independence in July. The President also reaffirmed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement must be fully implemented and stated “[f]or those who meet all of their obligations, there is a path to greater prosperity and normal relations with the United States”. This week, the United States initiated the process to remove Sudan from its State Sponsor of Terrorism List. On Thursday, President Obama nominated Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration to be the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya.

    On Wednesday, Vice President Biden met with Slovenian Prime Minister Borut Pahor and discussed potential integration of all of Slovenia’s neighbors into Euro-Atlantic structures, trade and investment opportunities, and Afghanistan. The State Department said it was “disappointed” the Cuban Government intends to seek a 20-year sentence for Alan Gross, an American detained for allegedly spying while working on international development projects.