This Week in Washington - April 1, 2011

    1 April 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Continuing Resolution (CR). Republicans and Democrats continue to struggle to reach a spending deal for the remainder of Fiscal Year (FY) 2011. The latest discussions have focused on cutting approximately $33 billion from current spending levels. Tea Party activists held a rally on Capitol Hill, calling for deeper spending cuts and the defunding of health care reform. On Wednesday, House Republican leaders announced they would vote on the Government Shutdown Prevention Act which requests the Senate to reconsider H.R. 1, the long-term FY 2011 CR passed by the House on February 19th. While unlikely to gain traction in the Senate, the Act would allow H.R. 1 to become law if the Senate fails to pass a FY 2011 measure before April 6th.

    President Obama spoke Wednesday at Georgetown University on America’s Energy Security Policy. The President acknowledged the recovering global economy and unrest in the Middle East have contributed to the recent rise in gas prices. President Obama also cautioned that long-term gas prices will continue to increase, highlighting China and India’s increased energy demands. In response, the President announced a goal of cutting by one-third U.S. dependence on foreign oil by 2025. This will be achieved, he said, by increasing domestic energy production and fostering new alternative fuels and sources.

    On Wednesday, House Judiciary Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) introduced the America Invents Act (H.R. 1249), the House companion measure to the Senate comprehensive patent reform bill (S. 23) passed by the Senate earlier this month. While the House version adheres closely to the Senate bill, some differences include a more relaxed standard for inter partes review, an extended deadline for filing inter partes reviews, and expansion of prior user rights to nearly all technological inventions. The House Judiciary Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet Subcommittee held a hearing on the bill Wednesday, during which Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) objected to the prior user right expansion, saying it was a “get out of jail free card” and cited Chinese intellectual property pirates.

    The House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday resurrecting the D.C. school voucher program, which would authorize $20 million annually for fiscal years 2012 to 2016. The program, a top priority for House Speaker Boehner, is the first bill he has sponsored this session. The House provided $15.5 million for the program in H.R. 1. While the Obama Administration opposes the voucher bill, it has not threatened to veto the bill. Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut) is the lead Senate sponsor.

    On Thursday, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee advanced several measures in yet another Republican attempt to rein in the health care reform law. Three of the measures focused on repealing mandatory funding for state-based exchanges, school-based health center construction and the Prevention and Public Health Fund.

    Senate Republicans John McCain (Arizona) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) unveiled a bill Thursday to end the government’s conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in two years. The measure is sponsored by Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

    The House passed the FAA Reauthorization bill Friday by a vote of 223-196. The bill now heads for potentially contentious negotiations in the Senate which passed a two-year FAA reauthorization (S. 223) in February. Key differences in the bills are the collective bargaining rights among freight carriers, the allocation of terminal slots at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and the House version reauthorizes for four years.

    On Friday, the Labor Department announced unemployment had dropped to 8.8 percent, with the economy adding 216,000 jobs in March.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    U.S. Role in Libya. President Obama addressed the nation Monday to summarize U.S. efforts to date in containing Colonel Muammar Qadhafi. The President accepted responsibility for authorizing U.S. forces to intervene in Libya, citing the need to enforce the international mandate to protect innocent civilians. President Obama affirmed America’s role would be limited, without putting troops on the ground, and said the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians will be a NATO-led international coalition. President Obama affirmed the U.N. intervention was to prevent a massacre in Libya, not bring about regime change. Secretary Clinton traveled to London and met Tuesday with Libyan opposition leaders and leaders of the international coalition. Citing the War Powers Resolution of 1973, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chair Michael Mullen and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained in congressional briefings Wednesday that President Obama had not overstepped his constitutional authority in authorizing the attack on Libya without congressional approval. Meanwhile, debate continued this week as to whether to arm rebels. On Wednesday, the media reported President Obama authorized the CIA to advise and to gather intelligence on the identities and intentions of the Libyan rebels. Secretary Gates also testified before Congress this week on the Defense Department’s FY 2011 budget, whereby he urged Congress not to further reduce defense spending beyond the President’s request. The Secretary cited the current strain on the Department’s budget which is supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya, and the relief effort in Japan. Secretary Gates further said the U.S. is projected to commit a minimum of $40 billion per month through its support of NATO for the Libyan intervention.

    Libyan Intervention. On Thursday, Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa defected to the United Kingdom, where British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Kusa would not be granted diplomatic immunity from prosecution. Also Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced U.S.-led Operation Odyssey Dawn had fully transitioned to the new, NATO-supervised Operation Unified Protector.

    Greater Middle East. On Tuesday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accepted the resignation of his cabinet as demonstrations increased. On Friday, the White House condemned the attacks on Syrian demonstrators and urged President al-Assad to “deliver on his promises and advance a meaningful reform agenda.” Also Friday, President Obama “strongly” condemned the attack on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

    Crisis in Japan. As a result of increased nationwide monitoring of potential impacts from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the U.S. Government reported Wednesday “miniscule” amounts of radiation in milk had been detected in California and Washington State. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration released a  oint statement that stressed the radiation levels were far below levels of public health concern, including for infants and children. Additionally, the EPA reported increased trace amounts of radioactive isotopes were detected this week in air monitor filters in Alaska, Alabama, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Washington State and the Northern Mariana Islands. Meanwhile, in Japan, radioactive iodine was found in nearby seawater that is 4,385 times the legal limit. Radioactive contamination of groundwater near Fukushima has also occurred.

    Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said a military intervention similar to the Libya war is not called for in Côte d’Ivoire. While the Assistant Secretary acknowledged there is a humanitarian situation in Côte d’Ivoire, he further emphasized there are approximately 11,000 U.N. peacekeepers on the ground and the intervention has been successful.

    Vice President Biden welcomed Latvian President Valdis Zatlers to the White House Friday. Topics of discussion included Afghanistan, Latvia’s role in the Northern Distribution Network, European security and furthering cooperation with Russia.

    Political Appointments, Nominations and Turnover. This week, President Obama announced the appointment of Ambassador Princeton N. Lyman as the new U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan. The President also announced his intention to nominate or appoint the following individuals: Henry Ensher to be Ambassador to Algeria; Kenneth Fairfax to be Ambassador to Kazakhstan; Nisha Desai Biswal to be a Member of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China; Michael Camunez to be a Member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe; and Gary Hirshberg to be a Member of the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. Secretary Clinton announced Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns will be appointed to replace Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, who is rejoining the private sector.