This Week in Washington - June 24, 2011

    24 June 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Budget and the Debt Ceiling Debate. Despite recent reports that the bipartisan “Biden Group” was making progress, deficit reduction talks came to a halt Thursday with the withdrawal of two Republican negotiators – House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Arizona). The two cited the need for the President’s involvement and the impasse over spending cuts versus revenue increases. Republicans continue to push for spending cuts that at least equal the increase in the debt limit, while Democrats want what they call a more “balanced approach” that includes a combination of spending cuts and tightening of some tax exemptions. Disagreement over proposed changes to entitlement programs, such as Medicare, also continues to impede progress. President Obama and Vice President Biden will meet separately with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) on Monday. The President also is expected to hold discussions with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Both parties went on record this week in opposition of a short-term increase in the debt limit.

    The House continued work this week on the annual spending bills with consideration of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Defense Appropriations bill Thursday. Amendments to that bill will be discussed when the House returns from recess on July 6th. However, the White House already expressed concern over a number of provisions in the base bill, including “strong opposition” to several Guantánamo Bay detention measures. Despite the absence of a budget resolution in the Senate, that chamber’s Appropriations Committee is set to begin its work next Tuesday with a subcommittee markup of the FY 2012 Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bill.

    The House passed (304-117) patent reform legislation (H.R. 1249) on Thursday after tweaking language related to funding for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The new language would allow congressional appropriators to maintain control of the Patent Office’s funding instead of allowing the Office to keep and spend the fees it collects. The House bill will now have to be reconciled with the Senate-passed version. While Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) strongly opposes the new fee language in the House bill, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the White House, and Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) have all expressed support for the revised bill.

    The White House announced a new effort Friday to bring together industry, university, and federal government leaders in the manufacturing arena to “invest in the emerging technologies that will create high quality manufacturing jobs and enhance our global competitiveness.” At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the President committed to investing more than $500 million in the new Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, which will be co-led by the President and CEO of Dow Chemical, Andrew Liveris, and President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Susan Hockfield.

    The U.S. Department of Energy announced Thursday that it will release 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in a coordinated effort by the International Energy Agency to offset oil supply disruptions in the Middle East. Republican lawmakers criticized the move, which they believe should be reserved for true emergencies, and argued for increased domestic production of oil and gas. In fact, the House passed legislation (HR 2021) Wednesday to expedite the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval process for issuing drilling permits in Alaska.

    Political News. Jon Huntsman., former U.S. Ambassador to China and governor of Utah, announced Tuesday morning that he will enter the Republican presidential race. Late Thursday, Congressman Jay Inslee (D-Washington) announced his intention to run for Governor of Washington State in 2012. The Democrats are favored to retain Inslee’s seat.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    President Obama addressed the nation Wednesday, outlining a time table for the U.S. troop draw down in Afghanistan. The President announced starting in July, 10,000 U.S. soldiers will leave Afghanistan and by next summer 33,000 troops will have returned home, changing the mission from combat to support. President Obama also said by 2014, “the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.” On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described U.S. talks with the Afghan Taliban as “very preliminary,” while also acknowledging the talks were “not a pleasant business, but a necessary one.”

    Libyan Intervention. Despite Secretary Clinton’s visit to the House Democratic Caucus Thursday, on Friday, the House handed President Obama a vote of no confidence on the Administration’s handling on the Libya intervention, voting 123-295 against a measure that would have authorized the war. Just hours later, the House voted 180-238 on a measure put forward by Representative Tom Rooney (R-Florida) that would have defunded the intervention. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) indicated that they rejected Rooney’s bill because the CPC believed the language did not effectively terminate all funding, which they support, and instead was back door authorization for the mission. Next month, the House has another opportunity to revisit funding for the mission, when the FY 2012 Defense Appropriations bill is set to be debated. Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing next week on the War Powers Act and may consider a resolution to authorize the limited combat mission. The resolution is sponsored by Chairman John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). On Thursday, the State Department announced the finalization of a transfer of funds that will allow Libyan students on scholarships in the United States to continue their studies until the end of May 2012.

    Greater Middle East. With over 10,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey and Syrian troops amassing at the Syrian-Turkey border, Secretary Clinton warned Friday that Syria must pull back its forces or the conflict might spread. Thursday, The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Iran and Syria, exploring whether sanctions are effective in preventing Iran from furthering its nuclear programs and generally condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. On Wednesday, the State Department expressed concern about the use of military courts and the severity of the sentences handed down in Bahrain this week against opposition leaders. The State Department continued to urge the Bahraini Government to create a national dialogue with the opposition. On Friday, the State Department issued a press statement on the Gaza “anniversary” flotilla plans, warning those planning to participate are “taking irresponsible and provocative actions” when attempting to “break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza.”

    President Obama commended the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) Wednesday for signing and agreement that will begin to ease tension in Abyei and allow UN peacekeepers from Ethiopia into the region. The President further urged all parties to agree to an immediate cease fire in Southern Kordofan, saying “[t]he situation in Southern Kordofan is dire, with deeply disturbing reports of attacks based on ethnicity.” On Thursday, President Obama called Armenian President Serzh Sargsian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, strongly encouraging the two leaders to finalize and endorse the Basic Principles on  Nagorno-Karabakh during their Friday meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Kazan, Russia.

    Tuesday, Secretary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa for the Security Consultative Committee meeting, also known as the 2+2 meeting. On Wednesday, Secretary Clinton travelled to Guatemala City to attend the meeting of the Central American Integration System (SICA). At the conclusion of SICA, the Secretary next travelled to Jamaica and attended the U.S.-Caribbean Ministerial Meeting, where attendees jointly reaffirmed the Caribbean-U.S. partnership in regional security, economic development, social inclusion, energy, food and nutrition security and climate change. Also Wednesday, Secretary Clinton expressed disappointment in the refusal of the Russian Ministry of Justice to register the Party of People’s Freedom (PARNAS), which includes some of Russia’s leading liberal politicians and effectively bars PARNAS from legally participating in Russia’s upcoming Duma elections. On Friday, Secretary Clinton met with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan, discussing North Korea, Afghanistan and the pending U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

    Thursday, the State Department stated the Administration “supports the ‘clean’ Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) exception for India and speedy implementation of the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.” On Friday, the State Department expressed concern over on-going violence in Burma’s northern Kachin State and other regions of the country, calling for a halt to hostilities. Next Monday, Secretary Clinton will release the annual Trafficking in Persons report.

    This week, President Obama announced his intention to nominate Brian Baenig to be Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations (Agriculture); and the following to be U.S. Ambassadors: Mary Beth Leonard (Mali), Sung Y. Kim (Republic of Korea), and Adrienne O’Neal (Cape Verde). On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously advanced Commerce Secretary Gary Locke’s nomination to be the next U.S. Ambassador to China to the full Senate for an impending vote.