This Week in Washington - March 11, 2011

    11 March 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Continuing Resolution (CR). On March 9th, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) brought up for floor votes the House-passed CR extension to fund the government through September 30th, as well as the CR proposed last Friday by Senate Democratic leaders. Neither bill passed. House Republicans unveiled another short-term CR on Friday, which would fund the government for another three weeks – through April 8th – and includes $6 billion in spending cuts. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Kentucky) stated the three-week measure would not carry social policy provisions, as the broader House-passed bill did. Meanwhile, Congressional leaders and the White House continue closed-door meetings on a longer-term compromise bill. President Obama urged lawmakers Friday to work quickly to enact a compromise spending plan.

    On Tuesday, the Senate passed by a vote of 95-5 a patent reform bill to transition the United States to the first-inventor-to-file system, commonly used in the rest of the world. Some House Members have voiced concerns over provisions of the Senate bill, including the “first to file” system, fee collection from the Patent Office and the “inter parties” review process for challenging the validity of issued patents. Chair of the House Judiciary Committee Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is drafting a separate bill.

    This week, the House voted to end mortgage relief programs supported by the White House. On Thursday, the chamber passed a bill to eliminate the Federal Housing Administration’s Refinance Program, which offers low-interest loans to homeowners owing more on their mortgages than the value of their home. Then, on Friday, the House passed a bill to end the Emergency Homeowner Loan Program, which provides emergency loans to unemployed homeowners facing foreclosure.

    On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power voted favorably to report a bill that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide. While the legislation is likely to win support of the full Committee and pass the House, it will face significant opposition from the Senate and White House.

    Also Thursday, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-Michigan) criticized the Obama Administration’s granting of 1,040 waivers to a portion of the health care reform law, stating this practice “is a tacit admission that the health care law is fundamentally flawed.” The Administration maintains the waivers demonstrate flexibility in the implementation of the reform law.

    House Homeland Security Committee Chair Peter King (R-New York) held a hearing Thursday, analyzing radicalization among American Muslims. Islamic advocacy and civil-liberties groups condemned the hearing as a witch hunt. Democratic Members were largely unsupportive of the hearing, which Chairman King and other Republicans described as necessary oversight.

    After a three-week standoff, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposal that will strip the state’s government workers of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights. Union leaders warned the Wisconsin state vote may have political repercussions across the country.

    Federal Turnover. Nevada Senator John Ensign (R) announced this week that he will not seek reelection in 2012, setting up a competitive open seat race in a Presidential swing state. Also, after 42 Republican senators said they would vote against Donald Berwick’s nomination as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus (D-Montana) admitted Tuesday that he will likely not have the votes to confirm Berwick. Last summer, the President gave Berwick a recess appointment.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    Libyan Crisis Timeline. This week, the State Department said the United States could not provide arms to Libyan civilians without violating the new U.N. Security Council arms embargo. The United States continued its flights to repatriate foreign workers who fled Libya to refugee camps in Tunisia. On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that, barring further developments, Colonel Qadhafi’s regime ultimately would likely prevail, given the government’s superiority in logistics and weaponry. Meanwhile, the State Department began reaching out to the Libyan opposition. The North Atlantic Council met this week and agreed to increase NATO’s maritime  assets in the central Mediterranean and to move forward with the planning of humanitarian relief and actively enforcing the U.N. arms embargo. Citing the possibility of a humanitarian crisis, President Obama said Friday he ordered plans giving the U.S. military “full capacity to act” in Libya, if the situation deteriorates further.

    On Thursday, Secretary Clinton offered condolences to the people of China after an earthquake struck the Yunnan province. Friday, President Obama offered his condolences for the loss of life and destruction after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck northeast Japan early Friday morning. The President also offered U.S. assistance and put the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on alert, as western states and Pacific territories of the United States braced for tsunami waves. The U.S. military redeployed several ships toward Japan and began preparing for possible humanitarian-relief missions.

    Vice President Biden travelled to Moscow this week and met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Topics of discussion included the U.S. Visa Waiver program, Afghanistan, New START, global counter narcotics efforts, and the global economy. Meanwhile, in Washington, President Obama met Tuesday with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and discussed Afghanistan, the Middle East and Australia’s recovery efforts from the recent floods. Prime Minister Gillard also addressed a Joint Session of Congress.

    Secretary Clinton called French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé Monday and congratulated him on his new appointment. Tuesday, the Secretary held a bilateral meeting with President Roza Otunbayeva of Kyrgyzstan. Secretary Clinton testified Thursday before the House Appropriations’ Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, warning against cutting foreign assistance. The Secretary later met with Chilean Foreign Minister Afredo Moreno where they discussed Chile’s earthquake recovery efforts, President Obama’s impending trip on the 21st, and strengthening the bilateral relationship. Next week, Secretary Clinton will travel to Egypt and Tunisia, after a stop in Paris to participate in the G-8 meeting.

    On Wednesday at a Senate Finance Committee hearing with U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk testifying, Chair Max Baucus (D-Montana) warned Congress may not advance any of the negotiated free trade agreements (FTAs) – Korea, Colombia or Panama – this year if they do not all move forward in tandem. USTR Kirk confirmed final technical discussions were ready to proceed with respect to the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement; however, he did not commit to a specific timeline for the Panama and Colombia FTAs.

    Assistant Secretaries of State Philip Gordon (European and Eurasian Affairs) and Robert Blake (South and Central Asian Affairs) testified Thursday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia. Assistant Secretary Gordon affirmed the United States strongly supports the EU’s Eastern Partnership. Representative Elliot Engel (D-New York) expressed disappointment with Turkey’s complaints about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory while in turn occupying Northern Cyprus.

    A bipartisan group of ten U.S. Senators wrote to Secretary Clinton Thursday demanding an update on the State Department’s investigation into foreign companies that continue to do business in Iran despite international sanctions. The Senators wrote “[i]t appears that Chinese firms in the energy and banking sectors have conducted significant activity in violation of U.S. law” and cited concerns about the recent International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s ongoing efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

    Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell travelled to Japan and, Mongolia before finishing this weekend in South Korea. Assistant Secretary Campbell issued an apology for alleged statements made by the State Department’s Director of Japan Affairs Kevin Maher, which offended Okinawans. Maher is stepping down from his current position. In Mongolia, Assistant Secretary Campbell led the U.S. delegation for annual bilateral consultations on peacekeeping efforts, regional security and the commercial environment.

    On Wednesday, President Obama announced Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke is stepping down to accept the nomination to be the U.S. Ambassador to China. Other nominees announced by the President this week include: Ariel Pablos-Méndez to be Assistant Administrator for Global Health (USAID); Daniel Shapiro to be U.S. Ambassador to Israel; and current Chair of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke to also be the U.S. Alternate Governor with the International Monetary Fund.

    Tuesday, the State Department criticized former President Laurent Gbagbo’s attempt to nationalize the cocoa industry of Côte d’Ivoire. On Wednesday, President Obama condemned “abhorrent violence against unarmed civilians in Côte d’Ivoire” and again called on former President Gbagbo to step down.