This Week in Washington - July 9, 2011

    11 July 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Budget and Debt Ceiling Debate. On Wednesday, Senate Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) presented his Fiscal Year 2012 budget proposal to Democratic leaders and the White House. The proposal will reportedly reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years through spending cuts and revenue increases, including $1 trillion generated through the cessation of tax breaks. Chairman Conrad continues to hold back public release of the proposal pending progress of the ongoing debt negotiations, in anticipation that the resolution could be modified to serve as the vehicle for a deficit reduction deal. On Thursday, the Senate began consideration of a non-binding “Sense of the Senate” measure expressing that millionaires should bear a higher tax burden in order to help ease the debt crisis.

    President Obama, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and other Congressional leaders met Thursday to further negotiations on a deficit reduction package and an increase in the debt ceiling. With an August 2nd deadline to raise the debt limit quickly approaching, three options are now being considered: (1) a short-term debt limit increase to allow more time for negotiations; (2) a deal equaling approximately $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years; or (3) a $4 trillion deal. President Obama has threatened to veto a short-term deal and is instead pushing for a $4 trillion deficit reduction package over 10 years. To reach $4 trillion, such a deal could include reductions to entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) and provisions providing for additional tax revenue in tandem with a measure to compel fundamental tax reform next year. However, the parties remain divided on issues of entitlements and taxes, with Democrats generally opposed to entitlement cuts and Republicans generally opposed to tax increases. Another meeting is scheduled for Sunday.

    The Department of Labor reported Friday morning the economy added just 18,000 jobs in June and unemployment rose to 9.2 percent. In a statement delivered in response to the report, President Obama called on Congress to pass several bills that could create jobs, including three impending free trade agreements and the House-passed patent reform bill.

    Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Appropriations Bills. Senate Appropriators continue to hold their work pending the outcome of the debt negotiations and passage of a budget resolution. Conversely, upon returning from its July Fourth recess, the House continued to work on its FY 2012 appropriations bills. The House Appropriations Subcommittees for Commerce-Justice-Science, Interior-Environment, and the Legislative Branch approved their respective FY 2012 spending bills on Thursday. Following a robust amendment process, the full House passed the FY 2012 Defense Appropriations bill on Friday and is expected to take up the FY 2012 Energy and Water bill next week.

    Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) announced Friday the House of Representatives will cancel its July recess and stay in session the week of July 18th. The House is expected to consider a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution during that week.

    On Friday, the space shuttle Atlantis launched into space from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch of Atlantis marked the final launch of a U.S. Space Shuttle program. In a statement issued following the launch, President Obama challenged NASA to “break new boundaries in space exploration, ultimately sending Americans to Mars.”

    House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-California) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder accusing top Justice Department officials of blocking attempts to provide details of Operation Fast and Furious, a controversial operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that lost track of hundreds of assault rifles on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. In response, the Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs sent a letter to the lawmakers on Wednesday countering the Justice Department “in no way sought to limit” access to information regarding the operation.

    Political News. Representative Thaddeus McCotter (R-Michigan) announced Saturday, at a festival in his home state of Michigan, he is running for President of the United States. Last weekend, North Carolina Republicans introduced a redistricting plan that adds Republican-leaning voters to the U.S. House districts of Democratic Representatives Heath Shuler, Larry Kissell, Brad Miller, and Mike McIntyre and Republican Representative Renee Ellmers. Democratic Governor Bev Perdue has no veto power over redistricting.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). On Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee simultaneously held mock mark-ups and voted in favor of the three pending free trade agreements (South Korea, Colombia and Panama). The Democratic-controlled Senate Committee approved attaching the trade adjustment assistance (TAA) program to the U.S.-South Korea agreement, while the Republican-controlled House Committee defeated an amendment introduced by Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-Michigan) to add TAA to the U.S.-Panama agreement. House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp (R-Michigan) said he was instead supportive of holding four sequential House votes on the three FTAs and TAA. The mock mark-up exercise allows the Administration and Congress to address remaining concerns and to gauge Congressional support for ultimate passage of the pending FTAs.

    Greater Middle East. The State Department was critical Wednesday of Iran’s persecution of religious minorities, saying “Iran’s leaders  hypocritically claim to promote tolerance,” while detaining, harassing and abusing those who worship the faith of their choosing. On Friday, the United States and the United Kingdom imposed visa restrictions on Iranian Government officials who have participated in human rights abuses in Iran. Also Friday, Secretary Clinton swore-in U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro (Israel), and publicly reaffirmed the United States continues to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge and to push for a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement. The State Department again expressed concern Tuesday over the ongoing attacks by the Syrian Government against Syrian protestors; and urged the Government to halt its intimidation and arrest campaign and to withdraw its security forces from Hama and other cities. The U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, travelled to Hama Friday; a trip the Government of Syria condemned. On Thursday, Secretary Clinton also swore-in U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker (Afghanistan). Secretary Leon Panetta was in Afghanistan Saturday, in his new capacity as Secretary of Defense.

    Libyan Intervention. The House voted Thursday on Libya-related amendments to the Fiscal Year 2012 Defense Authorization bill. While the House rejected three measures that would have prohibited funds for the U.S. military operation in Libya, an amendment sponsored by Representative Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) to ban funding for training, equipping or advising groups or individuals not part of a country’s armed forces was adopted by a vote of 225-201. The House also voted 316-311 to adopt Representative Brad Sherman’s (DCalifornia) amendment to prohibit spending that violates the War Powers Act. The Administration maintains the War Powers Act does not apply to U.S. operations in Libya. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) tabled the McCain-Kerry bill (S.J.Res.20), which seeks to authorize a limited combat mission in Libya. Senate Republicans claimed Libya discussions were distracting from the federal deficit reduction talks.

    President Obama joined National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s meeting Wednesday with President-elect Ollanta Humala of Peru. Discussion  topics included market-based economic policies, efforts to increase economic and social inclusion in Latin American countries, the U.S.-Peruvian environmental cooperation, and counter narcotic/security cooperation. Secretary Clinton also met separately with President-elect Humala. On Friday, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns spoke at the Croatia Summit 2011 in Dubrovnik. The Under Secretary praised Croatia for its progress, said the United States “strongly” opposes challenges to the Dayton Agreement, and urged Serbia to “come to terms with the reality of Kosovo.” Earlier this week, Vice President Biden called President Atifete Jahjaga of Kosovo and reaffirmed the United States’ continued, “irreversible” support for Kosovo’s independence and territorial integrity and sovereignty.

    Africa News. Wednesday, the State Department said the Administration was “encouraged” by the July 4th meeting between Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and First Vice President Salva Kiir and welcomed the commitment by both parties to continue negotiations on outstanding issues following South Sudan’s independence today. President Obama announced the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, will lead the U.S. delegation, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to South Sudan. The State Department also announced Wednesday the Administration was “gravely disturbed” about reports of mass rapes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “strongly” condemning the “severe” human rights abuses; and further noted the United States is working with the Congolese Government to “swiftly bring the perpetrators to justice.”

    This week, the White House announced President Obama will welcome Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand to the White House on July 22nd. The State Department announced Friday Secretary Clinton will travel to Turkey (July 15th), Greece (17th) and India (19th). Also Friday, President Obama announced his intention to nominate Michael Hammer to be Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (State), and Charles McConnell to be Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy (Energy).