This Week in Washington - September 17, 2011

    17 September 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Budget and Appropriations. The Senate Appropriations Committee continued to work through its Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 spending bills this week, approving the Defense, Financial Services, Legislative Branch, and Commerce-Justice-Science bills on Thursday. Additional mark-ups will occur in the coming weeks while House and Senate appropriators negotiate a final FY 2012 omnibus package. In the meantime, on Wednesday, House appropriators released H.J. Res. 79, a Continuing Resolution (CR) which would fund the federal government from October 1 through November 18, 2011. The CR utilizes the $1.043 trillion discretionary spending cap enacted in the Budget Control Act, which results in a 1.4% overall reduction in spending from the current FY 2011 levels. The measure includes $3.65 billion in relief for recet natural disasters. H.J. Res. 66, which renews import restrictions contained in the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, is also attached to the CR. The House will likely vote on the measure early next week, with the Senate likely following suit soon thereafter, as both chambers are scheduled to be in recess during the last week of the month and the fiscal year ends on September 30th. The Senate passed its version of a disaster aid package (as an amendment to H.J. Res. 66) on Thursday, providing for $6.9 billion in total funding. The Senate will likely try to incorporate this disaster aid package into the FY 2012 CR in place of the disaster aid provisions drafted in the House.

    Jobs Agenda. President Obama formally submitted the legislative text of his jobs proposal to Congress on Monday, citing its purpose to “put more people back to work and put more money in the pockets of working Americans.” He urged Congress to pass it quickly and highlighted the proposal in a series of events throughout the week held in Richmond, Virginia, Columbus, Ohio, and Raleigh, North Carolina. The proposal received pushback from House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in an address at the Economic Club of Washington on Thursday. In his speech, Boehner criticized the plan as “a poor substitute for the progrowth policies that are needed to remove barriers to job creation in America.” He went on to tout the GOP’s alternative approach to promote job creation primarily by removing regulatory burdens, fixing the tax code, opening new markets to American made products, and maximizing domestic energy production. A report released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2010, the median household income declined and the poverty rate increased. The nation's poverty rate rose for the third straight year -- to 15.1% -- its highest level since 1993.

    On Thursday, Congress approved another extension of the Federal Aviation Administration and surface transportation programs. The legislation (H.R.2887) extends aviation programs through January 2012 and highway, transit and safety programs through March 2012.

    Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing to question administration officials about the $453 million loan guarantee granted by the Department of Energy in March 2009 to Solyndra Inc., a solar panel company previously highlighted by President Obama that filed for bankruptcy.

    Political News. Republicans won two House seats in special election races on Tuesday, as New York Republican Bob Turner defeated Democrat David Weprin to become the first Republican to represent the Queens and Brooklyn-based 9th District since 1923. Meanwhile, Republican Mark Amodei won by 20 points in Northern Nevada's 2nd district, formerly held by appointed Republican Senator Dean Heller. After another Republican presidential debate this week, Texas Governor Rick Perry still leads the Republican field in national polls. Harvard Law School professor and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren officially entered the Democratic primary for the Massachusetts Senate race on Wednesday.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    Greater Middle East Developments. On Thursday, the United States re-affirmed its commitment to encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to resume direct negotiations and its intention to veto any Palestinian attempt to pass a statehood resolution at the 66th Session at the U.N. General Assembly, which opened Tuesday in New York City. In response to last Friday’s ransacking of the Israeli Embassy by Egyptian protestors, the State Department  said the United States had engaged both Egypt and Israel over the weekend and, by Monday, calm had been restored in Cairo. On Tuesday in Kabul, Afghanistan, Taliban fighters attacked the U.S. Embassy and NATO-ISAF Headquarters. Afghan police and NATO-ISAF troops and attack helicopters eventually repelled the assault. In response, Secretary Clinton said civilians serving at the Embassy “will not be intimidated by this kind of cowardly attack.” On Monday, the State Department opened the new Middle East Transitions Office, which will manage U.S. policy toward Middle Eastern countries transitioning from authoritarian rule.

    Syrian Crisis. The State Department applauded news Thursday that Syrian opposition groups are attempting to unify and encouraged a unified leadership structure that “builds consensus and articulates a vision for the future of Syria ….” The State Department also “strongly condemned” the “brutal killing” of Syrian human rights activist Ghiyath Mattar this week, and U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford attended the funeral before it was disrupted by Syrian security forces. Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee favorably advanced Robert Ford’s nomination out of committee, along with U.S. Ambassador nominations for Norm Eisen (Czech Republic) and Francis Ricciardone (Turkey).

    Libyan Conflict. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman traveled to Tripoli early this week, where he met with both the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil. On Wednesday, the State Department confirmed the Government of Niger had assured it will prevent travel by Saadi Qaddafi and other Libyan officials – including Moammar Qaddafi – subject to a travel ban instituted by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970. On Friday, the U.N. General Assembly approved a request by the NTC to accredit its envoys as the sole representatives of Libya to the United Nations, effectively recognizing the Council.

    On Tuesday, Secretary Clinton issued the annual International Religious Freedom Report. The Secretary said the report shines “a spotlight on violations of religious freedom around the world,” and affirms the United States’ belief that “religious tolerance is one of the essential elements … of sustainable democracy ….” Separately, the House passed the  United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2011 (H.R.2867) on Thursday.

    Trade. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) moved Friday to limit debate on the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade bill (H.R.2832), which will serve as the legislative vehicle for the renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) for workers displaced by foreign trade.

    President Obama joined Vice President Biden’s Tuesday morning meeting with Romanian President Traian Basescu at the White House. Secretary Clinton later met with Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi, where they discussed the newly signed U.S.-Romanian Ballistic Missile Defense Agreement. The Secretary acknowledged the agreement is a “step in implementing the Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense in Europe.” Secretary Clinton traveled Wednesday to San Francisco, where she co-hosted the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations and attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Women and Economy Summit.

    On Thursday, President Obama notified Congress that he had determined 22 countries would be listed as major drug-producing or drug-transiting countries this year. Three countries – Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela – were determined to have “failed demonstrably” during the past 12-months to sufficiently adhere to international counter-narcotic obligations, with presidential waivers granted to Bolivia and Venezuela.

    Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a bill (S.1539) Monday that will mandate that the Administration sell new F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (RFlorida) said during a Tuesday press conference on her U.N. Reform Bill (H.R.2829) that the measure does not remove the United States from the U.N., but rather will shift U.S. contributions to a “voluntary basis” and away from the current compulsory-assessed fees system.

    On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Wendy Sherman’s nomination as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. This week, President Obama announced his intention to nominate the following individuals: Alastair Fitzpayne to be Assistant Secretary of Legislative Affairs (Treasury); Michael McFaul to be U.S. Ambassador to Russia; and former Congressman Brad Carson (D-Oklahoma) to be General Counsel of the Army (Defense). The White House announced Tuesday President Obama will host President Myung-bak Lee of South Korea on October 13th for an official state visit.