This Week in Washington - March 4, 2011

    4 March 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Continuing Resolution (CR). On Wednesday, President Obama signed a short-term CR, which cuts $4 billion from current spending levels and will fund the government through March 18th. The resolution received bipartisan support in both the House and Senate and will provide additional time for the chambers to negotiate a deal on FY 2011 spending, averting a government shutdown. On behalf of the Administration Thursday, Vice President Biden hosted Congressional leaders for initial discussions on funding the government for the remainder of FY 2011. While Republican leaders criticized Democrats and the White House for not putting forth a specific funding plan, they attended the opening talks anyway. On Friday, Democrats unveiled their spending plan for the remainder of the fiscal year, which cuts $51 billion from the President’s FY 2011 budget request. A group of conservative Senate Republicans circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter Wednesday identifying their standards for considering legislation this session, which include requiring cuts to offset any new spending, periodic review of government programs, availability of cost and text of bills prior to passage, and consolidation of duplicative government programs. The letter also includes a requirement that Congress not infringe upon the Constitutional rights of the people.

    After staving off budget-related amendments and several unsuccessful attempts to remove a central provision relating to the transition to the first-inventor-to file system, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) set up a cloture vote for the patent reform bill to occur on March 7th. The bill could be cleared in the Senate as early as next Wednesday.

    Thursday, Federal Judge Roger Vinson issued a temporary stay of his earlier ruling that the health care reform law is unconstitutional, ensuring implementation can proceed in the 26 states involved in the challenge of the law while the Obama Administration pursues an appeal. Also on Thursday, by a vote of 314–112, the House passed legislation that would repeal a controversial tax-reporting requirement for small businesses, known as the 1099 provision in the health care law.

    The House overwhelmingly passed a surface transportation bill Wednesday to fund highway, transit and road safety programs through the end of FY 2011. Since the current authorization was set to expire March 4th, the Senate also quickly passed the bill, sending it to President Obama who signed it into law Friday.

    On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that a Kansas Baptist church’s anti-gay protests at military funerals was protected as freedom of speech, despite wide-spread unpopularity towards the church’s actions.

    In its latest projection, the Treasury Department estimated Thursday that the federal debt limit will likely be reached between April 15th and May 31st, slightly later than the original timeframe. On Friday, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the unemployment rate dropped slightly to 8.9 percent in February – its lowest in nearly two years – adding 192,000 jobs to the economy.

    Hawaiian Senator Daniel Akaka (D) announced Wednesday that, after 21 years in the Senate, he will not seek re-election in 2012.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    Libyan Crisis Timeline. On Monday, Secretary Clinton held multiple bilateral meetings while in Geneva, where the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to suspend Libya’s membership. In testimony before Congress this week, Secretary Clinton said the United States is cognizant that the people of Libya are reluctant to have Western support in ousting Colonel Qadhafi. Debate over the option of establishing a no-fly zone over Libya continued in Congress this week, though Secretaries Clinton and Gates (Defense) appear divided in their support for this option, with Secretary Gates attempting to dissuade its use. On Thursday, President Obama authorized the deployment of U.S. military and civilian aircraft to provided humanitarian assistance and began evacuating stranded foreign migrant workers who fled Libya into Tunisia. As of the end of the week, the U.S. Government had frozen approximately $32 billion in Libyan assets. Meanwhile, fighting in Libya continued to escalate with forces loyal to Qadhafi attacking Zawiyah, a rebel-held city west of Tripoli, and anti-government fighters claiming Friday to have captured Ras Lanuf, a key oil terminal in east Libya. The Libyan regime cut access to the Internet on Friday.

    Greater Middle East. Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq resigned Thursday and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces accepted the resignation, announcing Dr. Essam Sharaf as Prime Minister-designate on Friday. The Council also said a referendum vote on constitutional changes to allow for competitive parliamentary and presidential elections will be held on March 19th. Also Friday, the Tunisian interim government announced elections for the National Constituent Assembly will be held on July 24th. In Yemen, demonstrations continued and the State Department said Friday President Ben Ali Abdullah Saleh has established a dialogue with his opposition. Demonstrations also continued in Jordan, Iraq and Bahrain, with protesters demanding more input into political and economic reforms. President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai talked Thursday about U.S. troop reductions (beginning in July) and the transition to Afghan security forces. President Obama also expressed regret Thursday for the accident that killed nine Afghans in Kunar Province. The President also held his monthly national security team meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan courts ruled Thursday U.S. diplomat Raymond Davis does not have diplomatic immunity. The United States maintains Mr. Davis has full diplomatic immunity.

    Cabinet Congressional Testimony. This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations and the House Foreign Affairs Committees on the State Department’s priorities and budget, including USAID. The Secretary fielded a number of questions related to Libya, including whether military intervention was an option; China; and the passage of free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. While Democratic Members invited the Secretary to justify maintaining spending levels, Republican Members highlighted programs where funding could be curtailed, such as PEPFAR funding to China. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday on the United States and the global economy. Chair John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) noted the United States needs to “juggle” its “economic priorities with other national security interests.” Chairman Kerry also said the United States needs to “continue to press hard for adjustment in the valuation of the Chinese Yuan and for a fair and level playing field” for U.S. companies. Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) emphasized U.S. market share is being lost to China, Brazil and other Latin American countries who are increasingly signing free trade agreements with Colombia. Secretary Geithner acknowledged China’s currency is undervalued, and emphasized the Administration wants to work with Congress to advance the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which he said “will help set a precedent” and “pave the way” for agreements with Colombia and Panama.

    On Thursday, President Obama met with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Topics of discussion included combating illicit arms sales and narcotics, the death of U.S. federal agent Jaime Zapata; clean energy and climate change; and trans-boundary energy negotiations. Presidents Obama and Calderón also announced a phased-in program proposal that will resolve the NAFTA cross-border long-haul trucking dispute.

    State Department News. In Seoul Wednesday, Special Adviser for Non-proliferation and Arms Control Robert Einhorn announced the United States and South Korea will seek a U.N. Security Council presidential statement to condemn North Korea’s uranium enrichment program. Secretary Clinton met Thursday with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and discussed security, trade and promoting democracy. Also on Thursday, the State Department released its 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, a two-part report that provides an assessment of foreign government’s attempts to combat domestic narcotics problems and meet international treaty obligations. The U.S.-Turkey Economic Partnership Commission met Thursday in Washington to further enhance business relationships and trade cooperation. The State Department announced Friday the United States has joined the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), becoming the 63rd member. On Friday, Secretary Clinton condemned Laurant Gbagbo’s “acts of violence perpetrated against the people of Côte d’Ivoire.” The Secretary also met with Costa Rican Foreign Minister René Castro to discuss counter narcotics efforts, regional security cooperation, clean energy and Costa Rica’s developing aeronautics sector. This week, the Senate confirmed the following individuals: Daniel Shields, U.S. Ambassador to Brunei Darusalem; Pamela Spratlen, U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan; Sue Brown, U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro; David Carden, U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN; and Eric Postel, Assistant Administrator for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade (USAID).

    Wednesday, President Obama condemned the shooting of two U.S. airmen in Frankfurt, Germany, adding his Administration will "spare no effort" in its investigation of the incident. This week, President Obama announced his intention to nominate: Danny Glaser to be Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing (Treasury); Jon Leibowitz to be Commissioner and Chair of the Federal Trade Commission; Robert Patterson to be U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan; and Paul Piquado to be Assistant Secretary for Import Administration (Commerce).