This Week in Washington - May 20, 2011

    20 May 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Budget and the Debt Ceiling Debate. The House was in recess this week. Early this week, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) left the “Gang of Six” bipartisan budget negotiations, citing an impasse over entitlement spending. Senator Coburn’s departure may deal a blow to attracting a critical mass of Republicans to any resulting compromise measure. The leadership-level deficit reduction talks led by Vice President Biden will resume next Tuesday. On Thursday, Senate Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) said a Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 budget resolution mark-up will be delayed in light of the ongoing deficit reduction talks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) announced Wednesday the Senate will vote next week on the House’s FY 2012 budget resolution, a move designed to put Senate Republicans on the record regarding House Budget Committee Chairman Paul  Ryan’s (R-Wisconsin) deficit reduction plan, which proposes cuts to Medicare. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) says he will demand a side-by-side vote on President Obama’s FY 2012 budget proposal. Meanwhile, Treasury Department officials say the debt ceiling must be raised by August 2nd.

    On Wednesday, the Senate voted 42-57 to reject a Republican-led measure (S. 953) designed to expedite and expand domestic oil production, including via offshore drilling. Five Republicans joined all Democrats present in opposition. A procedural vote Tuesday on a Democratic proposal to eliminate $21 billion in oil industry tax credits also fell short of the requisite 60 votes in the Senate.

    Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Michigan) asked the Pentagon to explain reports of rising costs of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Ranking Member John McCain (R-Arizona) said the F-35 program should not be allowed to continue, if it cannot deliver the aircraft on time and on budget. The Pentagon is reportedly conducting a cost assessment of the F-35 program to try to reduce costs.

    House and Senate leaders agreed Thursday to extend all three expiring Patriot Act provisions through June 1, 2015. Senator Reid set a procedural vote for this coming Monday. Also Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported out three bills, which seek to: (1) increase penalties for environmental crimes and to require compensation for victims (S. 350); (2) encourage greater disclosure of court records in cases involving public health and safety (S. 623); and (3) bolster law enforcement’s ability to investigate and prosecute fraud, including expanding the international money laundering statute to cover tax evasion crimes (S. 890). Meanwhile, Senate Republicans successfully filibustered President Obama’s latest nominee for the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals – University of California-Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu.

    In light of the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster, Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-California) urged the Energy Department Wednesday to create regional facilities to house dry cask storage of nuclear waste material, eliminating the current practice of storing radioactive material in water. In response, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the Department is awaiting the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

    On Thursday, an independent panel report on the West Virginia Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion suggested the 2010 tragedy could have been prevented. The report was critical of both the mine operator and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

    Political News. After Tuesday’s open primary for a vacant, Democratic-leaning Congressional seat in Southern California, Republican businessman Craig Huey will face Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn in a run-off. This week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), a Presidential candidate, apologized for questioning the proposed Medicare cuts in the House Republican budget plan. Meanwhile, President Obama’s average approval rating currently stands at 52%.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    U.S. Middle East Policy. President Obama met Tuesday with King Abdullah, where he announced a commitment to additional monetary and wheat assistance for Jordan. In response to the “Arab Spring,” President Obama sought to elaborate on the Administration’s Middle East policy in a speech Thursday at the State Department. The President called for a Palestinian state based on Israel’s borders in place before the 1967 Six-Day War, with “mutually agreed swaps.” In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the pre-1967 borders were “indefensible,” a sentiment which several Republican Members of Congress echoed. On Friday afternoon, President Obama met with Prime Minister Netanyahu where they discussed the Prime Minister’s opposition to the President’s 1967 border policy proposal, Syria, Iran, and Israel’s defense needs. President Obama also announced initiatives in the speech to provide aid to Egypt and Tunisia, including U.S. forgiveness of approximately $1 billion of Egypt’s debt and a promise of another $1 billion in loans for Egypt through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. In his remarks, the President also condemned the Syrian regime’s chosen path “of murder and mass arrests of its citizens,” and called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to lead a transition to democracy, “or get out of the way.”

    International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned Thursday, after being arrested Sunday for allegedly sexually assaulting a hotel maid. IMF First Deputy John Lipsky was named as Acting Managing Director, while the search to permanently fill the position has begun.

    On Monday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) traveled to Pakistan to attempt to ease mutual distrust following the bin Laden operation, saying at the end of the trip Pakistan had “recommitted to find more ways to work against the common threat of terrorism” and announcing Islamabad’s return of U.S. helicopter parts from the bid Laden raid.

    Libyan Intervention. This week, NATO warplanes broadened the military campaign against the Gadhafi regime, claiming to have sunk eight Libyan warships in three ports and leading some senior Libyan officials to abandon Gadhafi. On Wednesday, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) circulated a letter, co-signed by five other Republican Senators, demanding President Obama detail the Administration’s intentions for U.S. forces involved in the Libyan campaign.

    Senate Republicans were “surprised” by National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling’s comments earlier this week that the President would not submit the implementing legislation for the three pending free trade agreements (FTAs) with Korea, Panama, and Colombia until reaching an agreement with Congress on the renewal of expanded Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). The White House and Congressional Republicans currently remain at odds on the overall framework of a deal regarding TAA.

    State Department News. On Monday, Secretary Clinton said Jordan’s King Abdullah is “a strong and steady voice” with respect to changes in the Middle East. The Secretary also delivered remarks Monday at the U.S.-Mexico Foundation’s Mexican  American Leadership Initiative reception. Tuesday, Secretary Clinton launched a platform to engage Diaspora communities, the private sector, and public institutions, on projects related to development and diplomacy in their countries of origin; and she held a bilateral meeting with New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully. The State Department also urged the U.N. to release its latest North Korea report, reiterating the United States’ “longstanding concerns about North Korea’s missile programs and its effort to supply the missile-related technology to foreign customers.” On Wednesday, the Secretary met with Chinese General Chen Bingde. The Secretary also held a bilateral meeting with Icelandic Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson, where they discussed last week’s Arctic Council meeting, Libya, Afghanistan, the Middle East and human rights. Secretary Clinton met Thursday with Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian to discuss the Minsk Group negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh, normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey, and democracy building and human rights.

    On Monday, Cabinet officials released the Administration’s international cyber security framework, which will incorporate network security into future foreign policy actions. This announcement follows a White House legislative proposal to ensure secure U.S. cyber networks. The framework makes clear the United States will defend its networks from terrorists, cybercriminals or other nation states, while also ensuring privacy rights.

    On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously supported S. Res. 174, discouraging the European Union (EU) from withdrawing from a 2007 agreement to exchange passenger name manifest data, a counterterrorism tool. Thursday, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) introduced the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, addressing perceived backsliding on democracy and human rights in Russia.

    President Obama announced his intention to nominate the following individuals: David Adams to be Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs (State); Patricia Loui to be a Member of the U.S. Export-Import Bank; Joyce Barr to be Assistant Secretary of Administration (State); and Luis Aguilar to be a Commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The President also announced John Heffern (Armenia), Susan Ziadeh (Qatar), and Anne Patterson (Egypt) as U.S. Ambassador-Nominees. On Sunday, President Obama departs for a six-day trip to Ireland, the United Kingdom, France (to attend the G-8 Summit) and Poland. Secretary Clinton will join the President for his trip to the United Kingdom and will then travel on to Paris to attend the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Ministerial Council meeting.