This Week in Washington - February 4, 2011

    4 February 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    The House is in recess until February 8th. Next week, the House is expected to consider two bills that would further restrict taxpayer-funding for reproductive services. One bill, sponsored by Representative Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), would make permanent the ban on federal funding of abortions and eliminate tax breaks for health insurance premiums on policies that cover abortion-related services. The other bill, sponsored by Representative Joe Pitts (R-Pennsylvania), would ban all federal funds for abortion related services as part of the health care reform law.

    On Monday, Florida Federal District Judge Roger Vinson ruled the healthcare reform law is unconstitutional, yet he did not grant an injunction to bar the federal government’s implementation of the law. The Administration vowed to appeal, making it likely the Supreme Court ultimately will decide the case. The Senate was in session this week and continued to set its subcommittee rosters for the 112th Congress. While Senate Democrats staved off a Republican effort to repeal the health reform legislation, Senators did vote 81-17 to eliminate the law’s unpopular 1099 filing requirement, the repeal of which President Obama had supported in his State of the Union speech.

    The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to advance legislation (S. 23) intended to make the U.S. patent system more streamlined and efficient. Senate and House Judiciary Committee leaders have made patent reform a top priority in the 112th Congress.

    On Friday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) announced a Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 spending limit of $1.055 trillion – a $74 billion cut from the President’s non-security budget request and $35 billion below FY 2010 levels. The House will take up the budget resolution next week, utilizing an open amendment process to allow proposals to restore or further reduce funding. A floor vote is likely for the week of February 14th. The House Appropriations Committee then may target U.S. foreign assistance programs and other spending for large reductions, but the new Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s State, Foreign Operations Subcommittee, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), strongly defended foreign aid as vital to U.S. national security interests, potentially signaling a future House-Senate clash.

    On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner reiterated the importance of raising the legal debt limit before the government defaults. Secretary Geithner called “unworkable” the related proposal spearheaded by Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey (R) to prioritize payments to U.S. bondholders over other government bills.

    The Democratic National Committee announced the selection of Charlotte, North Carolina on Tuesday as the site of the 2012 Democratic Convention. The choice signals President Obama’s intention to fight in the 2012 Presidential race for a state he won by just 14,000 votes in 2008. The 2012 Republican Convention will be held in Tampa, Florida, a state which then-Senator Obama won by a 51-48% margin in 2008.

    A report released by the U.S. Department of Labor Friday illustrated surprisingly good numbers for the growing economy, including the lowest unemployment rate (9 percent) in nearly two years and representing a decline for the second straight month. The total number of jobless workers is now below 14 million.

    President Obama travelled Thursday to Pennsylvania State University to discuss increasing innovation and improving energy efficiency. The President announced the Better Building Initiative, which will provide tax and financing incentives to businesses in order to upgrade commercial workspaces to improve energy efficiency.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    Egyptian Political Crisis. This week, the United States evacuated approximately 2,000 Americans from Egypt. On Monday, President Obama asked former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner to relay a letter to President Hosni Mubarak urging him  to step aside. While President Mubarak agreed Tuesday not to run for re-election in September, he refused to step down immediately. On Wednesday, anti-government protests and pro-government rallies turned violent, and the government detailed foreign journalists, all of which were actions the United States condemned. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said Thursday he intends to block U.S. assistance to Egypt until the country “gets settled.” Also on Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution, introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) and Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain (R-Arizona), calling for President Mubarak to transfer power immediately to an interim government. Meanwhile, Egyptian protestors dubbed Friday as the “Day of Departure” and marched on the Presidential Palace. On Friday, President Obama called for “real reform” and a transition of power that “must begin now,” includes “a broad representation of the Egyptian opposition,” and produces “free and fair elections”. At a hearing Thursday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Vice Chair Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia), and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), criticized the U.S. intelligence community for failing to warn the President in a timely manner of the potential for extensive unrest in the Middle East.

    Related Middle East Developments. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen offered Wednesday to step down in 2013, when his term ends, which opposition demonstrators deemed insufficient in a “Day of Rage” protest Thursday. After ongoing protests in Jordan, on Wednesday, King Abdullah II dissolved the parliament and Cabinet, and appointed a new Prime Minister – Marouf Al Bakhit. Secretary Clinton called King Abdullah Thursday and affirmed the United States’ “excellent” relationship with Jordan and said the United States appreciates “the example that Jordan has set in allowing freedom of expression during recent protests.” In Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced Thursday he plans to lift the 19-year state of emergency “very soon,” which the State Department said would be a positive development. In Syria Friday, opposition groups called for a protest against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

    Wednesday, President Obama signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia at the White House. On Friday, President Obama welcomed Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss climate change, energy, trade and border issues.

    On Thursday, Secretary Clinton met with Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Gordon Jandroković and discussed the United States’ strong support for Croatia’s membership in the European Union and the country’s role in promoting stability in South and Central Europe as a new NATO member. Secretary Clinton also met with Guatemalan Foreign Minister Haroldo Rodas and discussed human trafficking and the upcoming September presidential elections. Last Sunday, Secretary Clinton travelled to Haiti, where she met with President René Préval and discussed the February 7th expiration date of the president’s mandate. Thursday, U.S. Ambassador Ken Merten praised the announcement of the final results of the first round of the elections in Haiti and noted the second round is anticipated to be held March 20th. This week, Secretary Clinton hosted the 2011 Global Chiefs of Mission Conference, bringing together U.S. Ambassadors in Washington. Topics included the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review; the anticipated FY 2012 budget; preventing conflicts; building private-public partnerships; supporting commercial and economic diplomacy; advancing human rights and democracy; regional security issues; and promoting sustainable development. On Tuesday, Ambassador William Brownfield was sworn-in by Secretary Clinton as Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. On Monday, Secretary Clinton hosted a dinner for NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

    Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg visited the Maldives, last Friday and Saturday, where he discussed climate change, human rights and democratization. The Deputy Secretary continued on to Ethiopia Sunday, where he led the U.S. delegation to the African Union Summit and also met with senior Ethiopian officials. After the Summit, Deputy Secretary Steinberg travelled on to Djibouti, Sudan (Khartoum and Juba), Kenya, and Uganda, where he discussed regional security, human rights, democratization and climate change. The Deputy Secretary also discussed implementation of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Ghana is Deputy Secretary Steinberg’s final stop on Friday and Saturday.

    Senate Democrats urged the House to swiftly pass legislation that will extend the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which extends benefits to workers displaced by imports and is due to expire February 12th. The Administration and Congress are currently discussing the timing of action on the pending free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Republicans are considering supporting only a short-term extension of the TAA program, in order to pressure President Obama to send to Congress the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in the near term.