This Week in Washington - May 27, 2011

    27 May 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Budget and the Debt Ceiling Debate. The Senate held a series of votes this week on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 budget. On a procedural vote, the Senate rejected the House-passed budget plan proffered by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), which includes a controversial overhaul of Medicare. The vote primarily fell along party lines; however, Republicans Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rand Paul of Kentucky joined Democrats to oppose the plan. Meanwhile, the leadership-level deficit reduction talks led by Vice President Biden resumed Tuesday. While Democrats criticized Republicans for supporting a “budget that ends Medicare,” on Friday Minority Leader McConnell insisted that significant entitlement and Medicare reform must be part of any deal reached to raise the debt limit before the August 2nd deadline. Additionally, budget negotiators remain at odds over whether tax increases will be part of any deal; but Assistant House Democratic Leader James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), a Biden panel member, believes the “odds are very, very good” the talks will produce a $3-6 trillion package of spending cuts and revenue increases before August 2nd.

    Thursday, Congress passed a bill to extend three expiring Patriot Act provisions just before they lapsed. President Obama signed the four-year extension to “prevent a significant risk to U.S. national security,” according to a White House spokesman. Provisions include the ability for the U.S. government: to seek orders from a special court for “any tangible thing” related to a terrorism probe; to obtain roving wiretaps on suspected terrorists; and to seek surveillance orders for terrorists not connected to any organization.

    On Thursday, the House passed the FY 2012 defense bill, authorizing more than $690 billion for annual defense programs. A floor amendment offered by Representative Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) to require the Administration to provide a specific timeframe for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was narrowly defeated (204-215). The bill would prohibit implementation of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” until the chiefs of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines have certified doing so “will not degrade the readiness, effectiveness, cohesion and morale of combat arms units.” Authorization for the development of a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was also included.

    After Senate Republicans successfully filibustered President Obama’s latest nominee for the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals last week, University of California-Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu requested President Obama withdraw his nomination. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) used a parliamentary maneuver to ensure the Senate will hold pro forma sessions next week, which will prevent the President from making any recess appointments.

    On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 2007 Arizona state law that penalizes businesses for hiring illegal immigrants. The Obama Administration publicly opposed the law, as well as another Arizona law passed last year requiring law enforcement to crack down on suspected illegal immigrants. The State of Arizona has asked the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling against that law.

    After a devastating tornado hit Missouri last Sunday, killing more than 100 people, and following the recent storms and flooding in the Southeast, the House Appropriations Committee approved Tuesday a measure to add $1 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund.

    Political News. In a special election to fill the Congressional seat vacated by former Representative Chris Lee (R), Democrats earned a surprising victory Tuesday in a conservative district in Western New York. Former County Clerk Kathy Hochul (D) will represent the 26th Congressional District – the first time a Democrat has held the seat in more than 40 years. This week, several Republicans hinted at their upcoming announcements to seek the Party’s nomination for President in 2012, including: Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (Minnesota), former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty formally launched his campaign on Monday in Iowa.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    Greater Middle East. Last Sunday, President Obama addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where he sought to clarify his May 19th statement of supporting pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps. The President explained both the Israelis and Palestinians “will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967,” allowing for both parties to account for demographic changes. On Tuesday, before a Joint Session of Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his statement of last week that the pre-1967 borders were “indefensible.” The Prime Minister called the bipartisan quartet of Congressional leaders “steadfast friends” of Israel and received multiple standing ovations during his speech. The Palestinian Authority declined to comment on President Obama’s statements, instead focusing on the ongoing Fatah-Hamas unity negotiations. Meanwhile, on Thursday, in Yemen, the State Department evacuated non-essential staff and American citizens as clashes in Sanaa worsened, after President Ali Abdullah Saleh refused to sign the GCC-negotiated agreement to relinquish power.

    President Obama arrived in Ireland Monday, met with President Mary McAleese and Taoiseach Kenny, and delivered remarks at Irish Celebration. The President was hosted by Queen Elizabeth II for his stop in London. President Obama reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-British special relationship, addressed a special session of Parliament; held a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron; and also met with Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband. Thursday, Vice President Biden congratulated President Boris Tadić for the Serbian Government’s arrest of alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic. The Vice President also urged the expeditious transfer of Mladic to The Hague, where Mladic will face charges for his reported role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. The President travelled to France Thursday and attended the G-8 Summit, which focused on: democratization and modernization in the Middle East and North Africa; global economic growth; promoting enhanced nuclear safety after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident; and renewing the G-8’s partnership with Africa. On the margins of the Summit, the President held a number of bilateral meetings, including with Prime Minister Naoto Kan (Japan), President Nicolas Sarkozy (France), and President Dmitry Medvedev (Russia). The White House released a joint U.S.-Russia-France OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair statement Thursday, saying “the time has arrived for all the sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to take a decisive step towards a peaceful settlement.” President Obama concluded his trip with a stop in Poland Friday, where he met with President Bronisław Komorowski.

    Libyan Intervention. Late last Friday, President Obama wrote a letter asking Congressional leadership to pass a resolution drafted by a bipartisan group of Senators to voice approval for U.S. military forces’ continued involvement in the NATO mission in Libya. No movement on the resolution has been forthcoming in Congress. On Wednesday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) held a hearing on the War Powers Act, whose terms require Congressional approval, within 60 days, of deployment of U.S. troops. Friday marked day 67. Reflecting growing frustration over the Administration’s decision to commit U.S. forces following limited consultations with Congress, the House voted 416-5 to bar funds for any potential deployment of U.S. ground troops in Libya.

    State Department News. Secretary Clinton joined the President for his trip to the United Kingdom. On Tuesday, the White House announced Secretary Clinton imposed sanctions on seven companies under the Iran Sanctions Act. The Secretary travelled on to Paris Wednesday where she attended the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Ministerial Council meeting. Secretary Clinton travelled Friday to Islamabad, Pakistan, accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. The Secretary met with President Asif Ali Zardari and high-level military officials and stressed that the U.S.- Pakistani partnership must move past the bin Laden raid, acknowledged Washington does not believe Pakistani leaders knew of bin Laden’s location, and urged greater cooperation for countering extremists in the region. The U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, will travel this weekend to Khartoum and Juba to address the recent crisis in Abyei and outstanding North-South Sudan issues.

    The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing Thursday on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), where Deputy U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ambassador Demetrios Marantis expressed the Administration’s desire to move forward on the three pending FTAs with Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Chairman Max Baucus (D-Montana) said votes on the FTAs and the expanded Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program will be an “all or nothing” endeavor. Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said there are not sufficient votes in Congress to enact changes to TAA and argued for prompt action on the FTAs. Deputy USTR Marantis reiterated the Administration’s plan not to submit the agreements until it reaches a deal with Congress on TAA, a position that 41 Senate Democrats supported in a letter to the President on Monday.

    House Foreign Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) said Wednesday the United States likely will not contribute the majority of the $100 billion annual U.N. fund agreed to at the international climate change summit in Mexico last year. Chairman Rohrabacher cited the federal budget deficit and added, “Government investment alone is simply not a viable option” for confronting climate change.