This Week in Washington - July 30, 2011

    30 July 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Budget and Debt Ceiling Debate. Developments on the debt ceiling debate are continuously evolving, with Congress in session this weekend to continue negotiations. On Monday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) unveiled separate 10-year deficit reduction/debt ceiling proposals. During the week, President Obama endorsed the Reid proposal and threatened to veto the Boehner proposal, which as amended includes a provision requiring passage of a Balanced Budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution by both chambers before the President could request a second installment of debt ceiling authority. In a close 218 to 210 vote, Speaker Boehner’s plan passed the House Friday evening. Shortly thereafter, the Senate voted 59 to 41 to table the bill. Senate Majority Leader Reid then filed cloture on a modified version of his competing plan in the Senate and scheduled a vote for Sunday at 1 a.m. Meanwhile, on Saturday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a letter to Majority Leader Reid from 43 Senate Republicans vowing to block his modified plan, thereby signifying that Leader Reid does not have the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture. Saturday afternoon, the House rejected by a vote of 173-246 legislation mirroring the text of Majority Leader Reid’s proposal, demonstrating the current text of Leader Reid’s bill cannot pass the House. Late Saturday night, Senate Majority Leader Reid postponed the scheduled 1 a.m. vote until 1 p.m. tomorrow, allowing more time for ongoing negotiations. At this point, the path to a final outcome is unclear, although both chambers continue to work toward the goal of coming to an agreement to raise the debt ceiling before Treasury’s August 2nd deadline.

    Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Appropriations Bills. The Interior-Environment bill remains on the House floor. Several amendments have already failed, including Republican amendments to reduce funding for the Smithsonian Institution and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and Democratic amendments to address opposition to the bill’s treatment of the Environmental Protection Agency. The appropriations schedule in both chambers is now on hold pending the outcome of the debt ceiling negotiations. Looking forward, the delay will make it difficult for Congress to agree on many of the 12 annual spending bills before the new fiscal year begins October 1st.

    On Tuesday, the House unanimously voted to concur with Senate amendments adopted last week on the Restoring GI Bill Fairness Act of 2011 (H.R.1383), which would exempt certain veterans attending college from a tuition assistance cap scheduled to take affect this fall. The bill now heads to President Obama’s desk for signature.

    The partial shut-down of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) since last Friday has resulted in lost tax revenue for the federal government, as the FAA cannot continue to collect federal taxes on airline tickets in the absence of reauthorization. Air travel has continued normally, but about 4,000 FAA employees have been furloughed and more than 100 new construction and maintenance projects have been suspended at airports throughout the country.

    Along with 13 major automakers, on Friday, President Obama announced a new fuel efficiency standard as part of the next phase in the Administration’s national vehicle program. The White House and automakers agreed to increase fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by Model Year 2025. It is estimated the update to fuel efficiency standards will, by 2025, reduce U.S. oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels a day.

    Despite White House opposition, the House passed (279-147) a measure Tuesday requiring the Administration to decide by November 1st whether to allow construction of a $7 billion oil pipeline that would run from Canada to Texas. The White House has claimed the bill is unnecessary and interferes with the State Department’s review process, which will be complete before the end of the year.

    On Thursday, the White House announced the launch of the new Government Accountability and Transparency Board as a part of the Campaign to Cut Waste. The Board will focus on rooting out misspent tax dollars and taking steps to make government spending more transparent.

    Political News. Representative Mike Ross (D-Arkansas) announced Monday he will retire from his Republican-leaning district after the completion of his term in 2012 to spend more time with his family. On Tuesday, Representative David Wu (D-Oregon) announced his impending resignation after allegations of inappropriate sexual activity and calls for an ethics investigation by House Democratic leaders.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    State/Foreign Operations Budget News. Wednesday, the House Appropriations State/Foreign Operations Subcommittee briefly convened, offered no amendments to the State/Foreign Operations (SFOPS) Appropriations bill, and reported by voice vote the $47.2 billion SFOPS bill out of committee. At this time, the full House Appropriations Committee is expected to review the SFOPS bill this coming Wednesday (3rd), at which time amendments will be entertained. Meanwhile, following last week’s House Foreign Affairs Committee mark-up of the House Foreign Relations Authorization bill, Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chair John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) unveiled his Foreign Relations Authorization bill Wednesday. The draft Senate Authorization measure broadly supports the Administration’s generally multilateralist approach – encouraging U.S. participation in the U.N., including raising the statutory cap for U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations – and authorizes State Department and foreign aid funding in line with the President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2012 request ($59 billion); a near reverse of what the House Committee passed last week. Moreover, the Senate bill also does not condition aid to Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen or the Palestinian Authority. The SFRC is not expected to mark-up the Senate bill until this fall.

    House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp (R-Michigan) said Wednesday Congressional leaders have largely agreed on a process to pass the three pending free trade agreements (FTAs) with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, but were waiting approval from the White House. The plan, as explained by Chairman Camp, would have the Senate first pass a scaled-back version of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), the White House would then send the FTAs to Congress, where the House would consider the FTAs along with the separate TAA measure. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the House would take up the TAA bill in addition to the FTAs.

    Before returning to Washington Tuesday, Secretary Clinton’s final foreign travel stop was in Hong Kong, where she gave a speech Monday on Principles for Prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. The Secretary explained the United States and Asian countries must seek (1) an open system, where anyone can participate in any market; (2) a free system, “one in which ideas, information, products and capital can flow unimpeded by unnecessary or unjust barriers”; (3) a transparent economic system; and (4) fairness, which will sustain faith in the system.

    On Friday, the House passed, by a vote of 402-20, a bill (H.R. 440) sponsored by Representative Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) that would establish a new Special Envoy to speak out on behalf of religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. The bill was introduced in response to the New Year’s Day suicide bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt.

    Thursday, Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth held an exploratory meeting with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in New York City to determine if North Korea is prepared to fulfill its commitments under the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks and is willing to take steps toward denuclearization. The United States will consult with other Six-Party Partners to help assess next steps.

    Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner departs tomorrow for meetings in Sudan and South Sudan, where he will meet with leaders in Khartoum and Juba to discuss the rule of law and human rights. Earlier this week, U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Ambassador Princeton Lyman traveled to Khartoum and Juba to urge leaders to restart stalled negotiations on issues related to border security, financial arrangements, and currency.

    Tuesday, President Obama released the Administration’s Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime. The strategy results after an assessment of transnational organized crime (TOC) concluded that since 1995 TOC networks are “proliferating, striking new and powerful alliances, and engaging in a range of illicit activities.” This strategy addresses the expanding size, scope, and influence of TOC networks, outlines domestic policy and coordination toward combating TOC, and serves as an invitation for enhanced international cooperation.

    This week, Special Assistant to the President and National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Daniel Restrepo led the U.S. delegation to Peru to attend Thursday’s presidential inauguration of Ollanta Humala Tasso. Also Thursday, Vice President Biden expressed condolences to Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani on the loss of the President’s mother. On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously confirmed Robert Mueller to continue to serve as Director of the FBI through September 4, 2013. The Senate also confirmed Bill Burns as Deputy Secretary of State and Gary Locke as U.S. Ambassador to China. Meanwhile, President Obama announced his intention to nominate David Danielson to be Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (Energy).