This Week in Washington - April 29, 2011

    29 April 2011


    A record 164 tornadoes swept across six southeastern states Wednesday, causing devastation and, as of Friday, killing approximately 300 people. Thursday, President Obama acknowledged, “[w]e can’t control when or where a terrible storm may strike, but we can control how we respond to it.” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate was immediately dispatched to Alabama, the hardest-hit state. On Friday, the President visited central Alabama to reaffirm the federal government’s assistance and commitment to recovery efforts.

    National Security Team Changes. On Thursday, President Obama praised outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates “as one of the finest Defense Secretaries in American history.” Secretary Gates’ departure date is June 30th. The President said he intends to nominate Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta, a former Clinton White House Chief of Staff and Office of Management and Budget Director and a Democratic House Member from California, to be the next Defense Secretary. To fill Panetta’s seat, President Obama said he intends to nominate General David Petraeus, who currently is serving as ISAF Commander in Afghanistan. Lieutenant General John Allen was named to succeed General Petraeus. Finally, the President nominated former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, as the next U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, replacing Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.

    Congress is in recess until Monday. Likely topics on the Congressional agenda next week include: plans to raise the federal debt ceiling while addressing the deficit; incentives to the oil industry; competing House and Senate resolutions on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Budget; and possible Syria sanctions legislation. This week, large oil companies released robust first quarter profits, while gas prices remained high. President Obama renewed his call to repeal the tax subsidies to the oil industry. In an interview Tuesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) said all options for raising revenue are on the table, including revisiting aspects of the tax code that provide incentives to large oil companies. On Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Montana) released a proposal to roll back tax incentives for the five largest oil and gas companies and reduce the tax credit oil companies may claim against royalty payments to foreign governments.

    Breaking with tradition, Chair of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke held a news conference urging Congress and the Administration to address the federal deficit. Bernanke affirmed the Fed’s $600 billion bond-buying program will continue through June, as scheduled.

    On Wednesday, to quell continued speculation in some quarters on his birthplace, President Obama released the long-form version of his U.S. birth certificate, which shows the President was born in the state of Hawaii in 1961.

    Court Developments. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s (R) petition for an expedited review of Virginia’s lawsuit against the Federal health care law. The case will now proceed through the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated a lower court’s order that barred the National Institutes of Health from funding research on embryonic stem cells. U.S. Army medical and psychological experts determined WikiLeaks suspect PFC Bradley Manning is competent to face court martial, paving the way for Manning to appear before an Article 32 hearing to determine whether he should face court martial.

    Campaign News. On Monday, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (R) removed himself as a possible Republican Presidential contender. Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) announced the formation of a Presidential exploratory committee. On Wednesday, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval (R) appointed Republican Representative Dean Heller to serve out the remainder of the term of outgoing Senator John Ensign, who is scheduled to resign May 3rd. Congressman Heller’s selection sets up a special election for his Republican-leaning House seat.


    U.S. Imposes Syrian Sanctions. This week, nationwide shootings of civilian demonstrators by Syrian security forces again increased. On Wednesday, Russia and China blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn the Syrian Government’s violence. With increasing pressure to respond from Members of Congress and elsewhere, President Obama signed an Executive Order Friday “imposing sanctions against Syrian officials and others responsible for human rights abuses.” The sanctions apply to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, his cousin, the Syrian intelligence director, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards operating in Syria, blocking interests in property.

    Libyan Intervention. On Monday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi informed President Obama of Italy’s decision to provide additional military support to Operation Unified Protector, including air-to-ground strikes. On Tuesday, the White House approved the April 15th State Department request to drawdown $25 million in non-lethal aid for the Libyan opposition’s Transitional National Council (TNC). Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department said oil under control of the TNC could be sold and is not subject to U.S. sanctions. On Friday, NATO announced the coalition had successfully stopped Qadhafi supporters intent on cutting off access to the opposition by laying mines in the harbor of contested Misrata. Also Friday, Qadhafi supporters attempted to gain control of an opposition-control border crossing with Tunisia. Tunisian security forces are reported to have disarmed and sent the pro-Qadhafi supporters back into Libya.

    Greater Middle East. Last Saturday, the White House welcomed the announcements by the Yemeni Government and the opposition that they have accepted the GCC-brokered agreement for transitioning power. President Obama spoke Monday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan about regional security, developments in the Middle East, efforts in Libya, and Syria’s increasing use of violence against its own people. On Wednesday, President Obama met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to discuss regional security and to affirm strong U.S. ties with the UAE. Secretary Clinton met Thursday with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah to discuss the regional unrest. Friday, the Secretary met with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and discussed the bilateral relationship, Libya, and the demands for democracy in the Middle East. On Wednesday, rival Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas announced their intention to form a unified Palestinian government. Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations Kay Granger (R-Texas) and Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-New York) urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to halt the reconciliation process with Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) warned: “U.S. taxpayer funds should not and must not be used to support those who threaten U.S. security, our interests, and our vital ally, Israel.” The State Department announced it is monitoring developments to ensure its foreign assistance to the Palestinian Authority continues to comply with U.S. law.

    On Thursday, President Obama met with President Ricardo Martinelli of Panama where they discussed progress in moving forward on the pending U.S.-Panama free trade agreement, Panama’s banking and taxation reforms, counter narcotic efforts and regional security.

    Secretary Clinton and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa met Friday and discussed regional security. On Friday, the Secretary hosted the third Merida Initiative High-Level Consultative Group.

    Wednesday, the State Department said it was “troubled” by the deaths that occurred “at the hands of Uganda’s security forces” during a peaceful protest. The State Department announced Thursday that Ambassador Princeton Lyman, U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan, had been sent to Doha to join U.S. Senior Advisor on Darfur Dane Smith in urging the Sudanese Government and Darfuri armed movements to: (1) reach a political agreement, (2) commit to an immediate ceasefire, and (3) implement measures to improve security and humanitarian conditions in Darfur.

    Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns and South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Jae-shin signed a Memorandum of Understanding, initiating a diplomatic officer exchange program. The Under Secretary met Wednesday with the Co-Chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Minsk Group. Under Secretary Burns discussed “recent and upcoming activities as mediators of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

    Last Saturday, President Obama recognized Armenian Remembrance Day. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said it was “unfortunate” that some media outlets published information made public by WikiLeaks on Guantánamo Bay prison detainees.