This Week in Washington - November 20, 2011

    20 November 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    The House and Senate are in recess this coming week for the Thanksgiving holiday.

    Deficit Reduction & Super Committee. The Super Committee has less than one week to come to an agreement on $1.2 trillion in budget savings  before the November 23rd deadline. On Friday, the House fell short (261 to 165) of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

    Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Appropriations & Authorization Bills. On Thursday, both the House and Senate adopted the first FY 2012 minibus appropriations package, and the President signed it into law via autopen on Friday. The package included the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science and Transportation-Housing appropriations bills, as well as another FY 2012 Continuing Resolution (CR) that will fund the government through December 16th. The second minibus appropriations package, slated to combine the Energy and Water, Financial Services, and State-Foreign Operations spending bills, was blocked in the Senate this week when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) was unable to secure unanimous consent to combine the measures. The Senate now plans to include the nine remaining spending bills in a large omnibus package. On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously approved a revised FY 2012 Defense Authorization bill that includes an additional $21 billion in cuts to defense spending and revised controversial detainee provisions, which would require al Qaeda operatives and its affiliates to be held in military, rather than civilian, custody. The White House is opposed to the detainee provisions and released a statement on Thursday threatening to veto the bill if the provisions are not amended or removed on the Senate floor.

    The Occupy movement, which began in New York City as a populist movement against the perceived greed of Wall Street, unified Thursday, with several thousand marching in lower Manhattan toward Wall Street, where some demonstrators clashed with city police. Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, New York police cleared Zuccotti Park, which had been home to the two-month old Occupy Wall Street encampment, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg citing sanitation and health-related concerns. In other parts of the country – such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland – the police also similarly moved to clear Occupy encampments.

    On Monday, the Supreme Court announced it will hear five-and-a-half hours of oral arguments on the health care law’s constitutionality in March. Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley wrote a letter Tuesday to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts urging the Court allow for live audio and video coverage of the proceedings; a request House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) endorsed. On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration revoked Avastin as an option for treating breast cancer. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a Friday interview she could not comment on when the Department’s review of alternate routes for the TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline will conclude. Meanwhile, TransCanada agreed Monday to reroute the pipeline to avoid the environmentally fragile Nebraska Sand Hills. On Wednesday, Congress passed a bill repealing a three percent withholding tax on the payments private companies derive from government contracts. The bill included an amendment that provides a variety of benefits to veterans and provides employers with tax credits for hiring unemployed veterans. On Thursday, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu testified before an investigations panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Solyndra, saying the U.S. must continue to make investments into the "clean-energy race." This week, the media reported foreign hackers targeted and successfully hacked an Illinois water plant control system last week. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have yet to confirm a foreign cyber attack. On Wednesday, Pennsylvania state troopers caught Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, who was wanted for allegedly having fired a semi-automatic rifle at the White House. Ortega-Hernandez has been charged with attempted assassination of President Obama; although the President was not in residence at the time of the shooting on Veterans Day (11th).

    Political News. Representative Spencer Bachus (R-Alabama) has denied allegations of insider trading made by Hoover Institution fellow Peter Schweizer in his book “Throw Them All Out.” Republican Presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich faced criticism this week after media outlets reported that the bankrupt mortgage lender Freddie Mac paid him $1.6 to $1.8 million in consulting fees from two contracts that spanned from 1999-2002 and 2006-2008.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    Asian-Pacific Summits and Foreign Travel. On the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Hawaii Monday, President Obama met with President Ollanta Humala of Peru. Topics of discussion included partnering on issues such as social inclusion and security; as well as the upcoming Summit of the Americas. President Obama travelled next to Australia, where he and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard jointly announced Wednesday that groups of 250 U.S. Marines will rotate through military bases in Australia’s Northern Territory as part of an expanded U.S. military presence in the Asian-Pacific region. The President travelled next to Indonesia to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Leaders Meeting and the East Asia Summit (EAS), with Secretary Clinton joining him. President Obama described ASEAN as the “premier area” for discussing the region’s maritime boundary disputes. On Thursday, President Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed a five-year Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact to provide $600 million to support sustainable economic development, public health and public services in Indonesia. Also Thursday, President Obama witnessed the completion of a $35 billion deal for Indonesia’s Lion Air to purchase up to 230 Boeing commercial aircraft. While in Indonesia, President Obama announced Secretary Clinton will travel to Burma in early December; the first visit of a U.S. Secretary of State in over 50 years. This announcement followed the Burmese National League for Democracy’s decision to register for next month’s parliamentary by-elections and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s announcement she will run for a seat in the parliament. After APEC, Secretary Clinton travelled to the Philippines Wednesday to sign a Statement of Principles for the new, five-year, U.S.- Philippines Partnership for Growth (PFG) program. In Thailand later that day, the Secretary met with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, discussing the devastating floods in Thailand and the region, U.S. disaster relief assistance, and U.S. engagement in the Southeast Asian region.

    Greater Middle East Developments. Secretary Clinton and the White House welcomed Friday’s International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors resolution to express “deep and increasing concern” about Iran’s failure to cooperate on its nuclear program. The Secretary further stated the United States will work with international partners to increase the pressure on Iran’s government to meet its international obligations. On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) introduced Senator Mark Kirk’s (R-Illinois) Iran amendment to the Senate Defense Authorization bill (S.1867); the amendment targets foreign financial institutions that conduct business with Iran’s Central Bank. Friday, the White House welcomed the U.N. General Assembly’s “strong vote” on a  resolution condemning the Iranian assassination plot against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States. On Wednesday, the Arab League said the Assad regime has three days to respond to its proposed peace plan, which will allow Arab League observers into Syria, or it will face sanctions. The State Department welcomed the Arab League’s approach. The United States is also co-sponsoring with Germany, France and the United Kingdom, a U.N. condemnation resolution. A vote is scheduled for next Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition is reportedly increasing attacks against the regime, but so far the State Department has refrained from agreeing with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s description of the situation as “very much like a civil war." This week, State said U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford is planning to return to Damascus. On Friday, the U.N. General Assembly voted to re-instate Libya to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

    On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee marked-up and passed out of Committee, by voice vote, two Taiwan-related measures, seeking to compel the Administration to allow the arms sale of 66 new F-16 C/D fighter jets. On Friday, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) threatened to place a hold on President Obama’s nominee for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, Mark Lippert, in an effort to pressure the Administration to agree to the arms sale.

    State Department News. State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh said Wednesday the United States supports a sixth protocol to the Convention on Conventional Weapons that addresses cluster munitions. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman travelled to Argentina and Brazil from November 15th-18th, meeting with senior government officials to discuss topics including the upcoming December Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference. On Tuesday, the State Department, USAID and a coalition of private sector partners and civil society launched the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible  inerals Trade (PPA). The PPA will work with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other regional governments to sever the link between illicit minerals trade and violence and human rights violations. Wednesday, the State Department announced the creation of a new Bureau of Energy Resources to strengthen capacity in coordinating U.S. energy diplomacy. The State Department welcomed the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s Thursday conviction of the former Rwandan Mayor of Kivumu, Gregoire Ndahimana, for genocide and crimes against humanity.