This Week in Washington - April 22, 2011

    22 April 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Congress is in recess until May 2nd. On Monday, Standard and Poor's, an independent credit rating firm, lowered its outlook for the U.S. Government's long-term credit rating from “stable” to "negative," indicating the company could possibly downgrade the nation’s credit rating within the next two years. The next day, President Obama held a town hall meeting to further discuss his plan to reduce the deficit, while criticizing Republicans’ proposed reductions in Medicare and Medicaid without raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. On Thursday, the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget called President Obama’s plan “a balanced approach to begin improving the nation’s finances” but “when compared to the House [Republican] budget and [Bowles-Simpson] Fiscal Commission plan, the President’s Framework falls short” on budget savings. Vice President Joe Biden will lead bipartisan, bicameral negotiations on the federal debt limit and deficit reduction in May. Some Members of Congress participating in the negotiations were named this week, including: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), House Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Montana). The Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six” group is also working on a debt-reduction framework and is expected to release its proposal in early May.

    On Monday, an air traffic controller allowed a plane carrying First Lady Michelle Obama to get too close to a cargo jet. The incident received the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) most serious classification for operational errors. The FAA announced new rules Wednesday to prevent air traffic controllers from falling asleep on the job and to require a higher level of supervision of aircraft carrying the First Lady or Vice President.

    As the nation’s gas prices continue to rise, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday that the Department of Justice’s newly formed “Oil and Gas Price Fraud Working Group” will begin monitoring the oil and gas markets for possible price manipulation, collusion, or fraud.

    A year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, British Petroleum (BP) executives and U.S. government officials announced an agreement providing for a $1 billion payment by BP to cover early oil spill restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. The advance payment will provide for $100 million to each of the five states affected by the spill – Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas – and to the Department of Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The remaining $300 million will be granted to select projects by the federal agencies involved.

    On Tuesday, President Obama, members of his Cabinet and senior staff met with a group of business, law enforcement, and faith leaders, as well as current and former elected officials, to discuss fixing the nation’s immigration system. The President urged meeting attendees to insist “…that Congress act to create a system that meets our nation's needs for the 21st century and that upholds America's history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.”

    Campaign News. Senator John Ensign (R-Nevada) announced Thursday that he will resign his Senate seat on May 3rd. The Senator has been under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee since news surfaced in 2009 of his admitted extramarital affair with a campaign staffer. Nevada’s Republican Governor Brian Sandoval will name a replacement to serve out the remainder of Senator Ensign’s term through 2012. Representative Dean Heller (R-Nevada) and Representative Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada) are expected to face off in 2012 for the Senate seat in the swing state. Meanwhile, state redistricting efforts have created a likely general election contest between Congressman Tom Latham (R-Iowa) and Congressman Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) and a possible primary between Congressman Charles Boustany (R-Louisiana) and Congressman Jeff Landry (R-Louisiana).

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    Libyan Intervention. On Friday, Chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said the Libyan conflict is moving toward a stalemate. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced Thursday that President Obama approved the use of armed Predator drones in Libya, which were immediately deployed against Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s forces. On Friday, Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain (R-Arizona) arrived in Benghazi. While visiting the opposition stronghold, Senator McCain advocated for increased assistance to the Libyan rebels. Last Friday, the State Department notified Congress that it wanted to drawdown $25 million worth of non-lethal commodities to provide to the Transitional National Council, but the White House has not yet approved the drawdown request. The Administration continued to state it is not considering sending military advisors, as the British, Italian and French governments have done, or ground troops. On Wednesday, President Obama spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron about increasing military, diplomatic, and economic pressure on the Qadhafi regime. Also Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney acknowledged film director and photographer Tim Hetherington, who died covering the Libyan government’s siege of opposition-held Misrata.

    Greater Middle East. Early this week, President Bashar al-Assad reportedly lifted the state of emergency in Syria, but on Tuesday, the State Department said the United States continues to oppose Syria’s candidacy for the U.N. Human Rights Council. On Wednesday, Secretary Clinton condemned ongoing violence committed by Syrian security forces against demonstrators. However on Friday, Syrian security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters in several towns, killing dozens of people. While the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposed a three-month transition plan for President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen to step aside, demonstrators again took to the streets Friday in Sana’a and Taiz, with those opposed to the President again demanding his immediate ouster. As part of discussions as to whether a U.S. troop presence is needed beyond 2011 in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assured Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Admiral Mike Mullen in Baghdad that Iraqi security forces are prepared to maintain their own security. On Friday, a U.S. Predator drone fired missiles into a militant-held tribal region in Pakistan, reportedly killing 25. Earlier in the week, the head of the Pakistani military, General Ashfaq Kayani, had said U.S. drone strikes “not only undermine our national effort against terrorism but turn public support against our efforts.” Meanwhile, Admiral Mullen publicly criticized alleged support from Pakistan’s intelligence agency for the Haqqani network of anti-U.S. insurgents in Afghanistan.

    Last weekend in Seoul, Secretary Clinton and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan agreed that denuclearization talks between Seoul and Pyongyang should precede the resumption of Six-Party Talks. The Secretary also traveled to Tokyo and expressed sympathy and support for tsunami-related devastation in meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto. Secretary Clinton also announced a new public-private partnership for reconstruction in Japan. On Thursday, the Japanese Government imposed legal restrictions on public access to the exclusion zone extending roughly 12 miles around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Tuesday, the State Department commemorated with Ukraine the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

    The White House affirmed Tuesday that the Administration had worked with the Panamanian Government and legislature to resolve outstanding tax and labor issues related to the U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement.

    Secretary Clinton formally congratulated President-elect Martelly on his victory in Haiti’s March election Wednesday in Washington. Also discussed in the bilateral meeting was progress in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. This week, Secretary Clinton also congratulated President Goodluck Jonathan for his resounding re-election in Nigeria. Also, Washington hosted the United States-African Union High Level Meeting this week.

    On Wednesday, the State Department recognized the 1000th ISAF supply mission transition over Russian airspace, highlighting the agreement is the result of the U.S.-Russia bilateral “reset.” Vice President Biden called Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Thursday to discuss Russia’s prospective World Trade Organization accession, working to remove Russia from inclusion in the Jackson-Vanik Congressional trade restrictions, and missile defense cooperation.

    Despite U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon not having formally released his advisory panel’s report on alleged war crimes said to have occurred during the Sri Lankan war, portions of the report were leaked to the media this week. The U.N. panel’s investigation is reported to have found “credible allegations” of war crimes. The State Department said Tuesday “the Sri Lankan Government has taken some steps to address accountability” but should also take advantage of the expertise proffered by the U.N.