This Week in Washington - August 12, 2011

    12 August 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Congress is in recess this week.

    Super Committee. All twelve Members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, or “Super Committee,” tasked with identifying an additional $1.2-1.5 trillion in budget savings this fall as part of the debt ceiling agreement, were named this week. The Senators named include Patty Murray (D-Washington), Max Baucus (D-Montana), John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). House Members include Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Dave Camp (R-Michigan), Fred Upton (R-Michigan), Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina), Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), and Xavier Becerra (D-California). Senator Murray and Representative Hensarling will serve as co-chairs.

    On August 5th, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) downgraded the United States’ credit rating to AA+ for the first time in U.S. history, causing the Dow Jones industrial average to wildly fluctuate – and ultimately finish down approximately 1.5% – over the course of the next week. S&P cited “political brinksmanship” over the nation’s debt limit as the main reason for the downgrade. In response, President Obama called the United States “a AAA country” and urged Congress to take serious steps to reduce the deficit and help the struggling job market. The President also met with Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke on Thursday to discuss the outlook for economic recovery. The White House also announced Thursday that President Obama will begin a three-day bus tour of the Midwestern United States on August 15th to “discuss ways to grow the economy, strengthen the middle class and accelerate hiring in communities.”

    On Tuesday, the Administration announced the first-ever national fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas pollution standards for work trucks, buses and other heavy-duty vehicles. The regulations, administered jointly by the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency, will apply to trucks built from 2014 through 2018 and are expected to save businesses an estimated $50 billion in fuel costs, as well as reduce U.S. oil consumption by a projected 530 million barrels.

    The federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday struck down the 2010 health care reform law’s individual insurance mandate, ruling that “Congress exceeded its commerce power.” However, the appeals court upheld other provisions of the law, including its Medicaid expansion. The Administration strongly disagreed with the individual mandate ruling and will likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Political News. Republican Texas Governor Rick Perry is expected to officially announce his candidacy for President this Saturday in South Carolina, a spokesman said Thursday. The second Republican presidential debate was held in Iowa Thursday evening, where the Ames Straw Poll will take place Saturday. On Tuesday, Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed into law the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature’s Congressional redistricting plan, which merges the districts of Democratic Congressmen Sander Levin and Gary Peters and adds Republican-leaning voters to the seats of current Republican Representatives Thad McCotter, Dan Benishek, Tim Walberg, Fred Upton, and Dave Camp.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    On Saturday, 30 U.S. service members were killed when their CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan – the worst single-day toll since the United States entered Afghanistan nearly ten years ago. President Obama received a condolence call Sunday from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, at which point President Obama expressed condolences for the loss of Afghan soldiers who died in the tragedy. On Wednesday, President Obama flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to pay tribute as the soldiers’ bodies returned stateside. The President and his national security team were briefed Thursday by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), General John Allen, about the situation in Afghanistan.

    Monday, the President dedicated an additional $105 million for humanitarian relief efforts in the Horn of Africa. Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden visited refugee camps in Kenya Monday, accompanied by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. Thursday, Secretary Clinton highlighted the crisis in Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Somalia, saying the situation facing these countries is “the most severe humanitarian emergency in the world today.” This week, the Secretary urged al-Shabaab (a terrorist organization) to allow humanitarian assistance into the areas under its de facto control in Somalia.

    Syrian Crisis. With the civilian death toll continuing to rise in Syria’s opposition stronghold of Hama, the U.S. Administration reportedly is considering calling for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This week, Secretary Clinton again reiterated President Assad has lost legitimacy and urged additional, coordinated international pressure. Last weekend, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League issued statements condemning the violence, which the United States welcomed. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain recalled their Ambassadors early this week; however, the United States said U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford will remain in Damascus. On Wednesday, the Treasury Department imposed additional sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria, the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank and the Syriatel mobile phone operator. On Thursday, President Obama spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about the situation, with both underscoring concern over the Syrian Government’s use of violence. Friday, Secretary Clinton said Ambassador Ford delivered a clear message to the Syrian Government Thursday: (1) immediately stop the violence, (2) withdraw security forces, and (3) respond to the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.

    Middle East. President Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday, discussing the Middle East Peace process, regional issues and security concerns. On Thursday, the Israeli Interior Minister gave the final approval for the construction of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem – a project initially announced during Vice President Biden’s March trip to Israel. The State Department again said such unilateral action works  against efforts to resume direct negotiations. Meanwhile, in Egypt, anti-American sentiment appears to be increasing – with negative campaigns particularly directed towards U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson. The State Department expressed concern Wednesday over this trend, saying the campaigns do not accurately portray the United States. This week, the media reported 92 Senators signed a letter to President Obama urging him to sanction Iran’s Central Bank, saying the bank “lies at the center” of Tehran’s efforts to circumvent already imposed sanctions. The letter also threatened bipartisan legislation if the President does not act.

    The State Department said Monday the arrest of Ukrainian opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko raises questions about the application of the rule of law in Ukraine. Republican Senators John McCain (Arizona) and Richard Lugar (Indiana) also both publicly expressed concern over Ms. Tymoshenko’s detention, with Senator Lugar calling on “Ukrainians to leave past political disagreements behind them.”

    The State Department also expressed concern Monday over the detention of Ales Byalyatski, a prominent human rights activist, and other political prisoners in Belarus. On Thursday, the United States imposed additional economic sanctions against four major Belarusian state-owned enterprises, targeted for their role in increased repression in Belarus since the December 19th presidential elections. On Friday, Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko reportedly pardoned nine anti-government protestors.
     
    Despite the Administration’s sanctioning of dozens of Russian officials last month for the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland) said he is pushing forward with his bill (S. 1039) to sanction human rights violators in Russia. The Administration remains opposed to S. 1039, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) has indicated he is working to modify the bill’s language.

    On Tuesday, South Korea returned artillery fire after North Korea fired shells in the vicinity of Yeonpyeong Island. The United States called on North Korea to exercise restraint and to take steps that will allow the Six-Party Talks to resume. Wednesday, Secretary Clinton joined Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns’ meeting with Korean National Security Advisor Chun Young-Woo, discussing bilateral, regional and global issues. Last Sunday, the White House marked the 13th anniversary of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks against U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. On Monday, President Obama spoke with Spanish President Jose Luis Zaptero and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about the eurozone crisis. Wednesday, the President talked to British Prime Minister David Cameron about the civil unrest in the United Kingdom and international economic matters. Also Wednesday, the State Department expressed dismay over Vietnam’s conviction of blogger Pham Minh Hoang, saying the prosecution of an individual expressing his views contradicts the government’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On Thursday, Secretary Clinton swore-in U.S. Ambassador Paul Wohlers (Macedonia). The Secretary held a bilateral meeting Friday with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere, where she again extended sympathies for the recent domestic attack in Norway. Next week, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman will lead an interagency delegation to launch the U.S.-Brazil Strategic Energy Dialogue, a partnership announced in March during President Obama’s trip to Brazil.