This Week in Washington - November 24, 2011

    24 November 2011

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

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

    Super Committee. Late Monday afternoon, the Super Committee released a statement announcing that the panel had concluded its deliberations without agreeing on a plan to reduce future budget deficits by at least $1.2 trillion, thereby triggering across-the-board cuts, or sequestration, to both defense and non-defense spending scheduled to take effect in 2013. President Barack Obama warned Members of Congress that he will veto any effort to circumvent the automatic spending cuts triggered by the inaction of the Super Committee. Some Congressional Republicans had issued statements vowing to introduce legislation to block automatic cuts to the federal defense budget.

    New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Sunday that New York police had arrested a man accused of plotting to bomb police and post offices. The New York City Police Department described the man as “an unemployed U.S. citizen and al-Qaeda sympathizer” who was acting alone.

    During an event in New Hampshire on Tuesday, President Obama discussed an item on his jobs agenda – the payroll tax cut – which he wants to expand for workers and extend to other businesses before the current payroll tax cuts expire at the end of December. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) has stated Congressional Republicans are willing to discuss the issue with the White House.

    State Immigration Challenges. Congressional Democrats visited Alabama this week to campaign against the state’s new immigration law, which was modeled after Arizona’s controversial law. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state of Utah over the state’s new law that allows police to detain individuals suspected of being in the country illegally. Attorney General Eric Holder said, “[t]he Federal government is the chief enforcer of immigration laws and while we appreciate cooperation from states . . . it is clearly unconstitutional for a state to set its own immigration policy.”

    A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on Tuesday alleges that several for-profit colleges accepted fraudulent documents from undercover investigators posing as students. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) requested the investigation and hailed its conclusions, stating that “[t]he findings of this report underscore the need for stronger oversight of the for-profit education industry in order to ensure that students and taxpayers are getting a good value for their investment in these schools.”

    Some Occupy Wall Street protesters heckled President Obama during his jobs speech on Tuesday in New Hampshire. On Wednesday, Occupy protesters at the University of California at Davis protested the use of pepper spray by university police against non-violent student protestors who had refused to leave an encampment they had set up on campus.

    Political News. On Tuesday, Republican presidential candidates showed differing national security and foreign policy approaches at a Washington GOP debate on issues such as immigration, balancing national security with civil liberties, the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan, aid to Pakistan, and the Iranian threat. Donald Berwick, the head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid at the Department of Health and Human Services, announced on Wednesday that he will step down December 2nd. President Obama immediately announced his intention to nominate Berwick’s deputy, Marilyn Tavenner, to the position. On Monday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (D) signed into law a redistricting plan that eliminates the district of retiring Congressman John Olver (D-Massachusetts), along with other, more modest changes to the state’s U.S. House map.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    New U.S. Iran Sanctions. On Monday, President Obama announced a new Executive Order expanding sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas business. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner also announced the Treasury Department is formally identifying Iran as a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern, seeking to further isolate Iran’s Central Bank from the international financial sector. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said these new measures complement sanctions implemented by the United Kingdom and Canada, and she also indicated additional sanctions may be forthcoming.

    This week after several deaths and thousands injured, the anti-government protests in Cairo’s Tahrir square resulted in the interim military government agreeing Tuesday to transition Egypt to civilian rule by July 2012. This came after the military government accepted the resignations of the interim civilian government leaders. Despite the pledge to hold earlier elections, protests and clashes with security forces continued Wednesday in Cairo. The United States has encouraged both protestors and the interim government to refrain from violence.

    After departing Yemen for Saudi Arabia, President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed Wednesday to transfer executive power immediately to his Vice President in exchange for immunity, effectively ending 33 years in power. President Obama welcomed the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement, saying the development will allow for a government of national unity within 14 days and early presidential elections within 90 days. The President also appreciated President Saleh’s decision to transfer power immediately.

    On Monday, the State Department encouraged all parties in Libya to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners in their custody, including recently captured Seif al-Islam (Qaddafi’s son). Late Tuesday, Interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib announced a new Cabinet in Libya intended to unite the various factions; however, on Wednesday, some of Libya’s tribes said they would not recognize the government. Secretary Clinton said Wednesday the formation of a new Cabinet is a “significant step in Libya’s transition to a true democracy that is inclusive and representative of all Libyans.”

    Also Wednesday, the Pakistan Government announced liberal politician Sherry Rehman will replace former Pakistani Ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani. Haqqani resigned after allegations he had sought U.S. help to prevent a possible military coup in Pakistan following the death of Osama bin Laden.

    The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) released its report Wednesday on Bahrain's security forces' response to anti-government protests earlier this year. The 500+ page report found excessive force had been used, including torture; but no evidence was found to support the government’s allegation of Iranian interference. Secretary Clinton welcomed the release of the BICI report and commended King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s initiative for commissioning it. She also said the United States is “deeply concerned about the abuses identified in the report,” and urged the Government to address these issues. The Bahraini government indicated it now needs time to review the report and its recommendations.

    This week, the State Department said U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford is likely to return to Syria only when his safety can be assured, and the Syrian regime promises to honor its Vienna Convention obligations.

    On Tuesday, the State Department advised the United States will cease implementing its obligations – vis-àvis Russia – under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty; a move that State said responds to Russia’s cessation of implementation of the CFE Treaty. The United States will, however, maintain its obligations with the other 28 states parties in the CFE Treaty.

    President Obama spoke Monday with Guatemalan President-elect Otto Perez Molina, congratulating him on his recent election. Both discussed the importance of institutional reforms, respect for human rights and citizen security and economic growth. President Obama also spoke with Greek Prime Minister Lukas Papademos, congratulating him on his appointment and expressing U.S. support for Greece’s efforts to implement its commitments under its E.U.-IMF program. Next Tuesday (29th), President Obama will host Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands for a meeting in the Oval Office. On Tuesday, despite opposition, the South Korean government ratified the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

    On Monday, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland congratulated Mariano Rajoy and his conservative Popular Party on their resounding win over the incumbent Socialists in Spain's national elections on Sunday. Nuland added, "Spain is obviously a close partner and ally of the United States, and we look forward to continuing our strong relationship with the future government of Spain on a wide range of issues." On Tuesday, the Department of State announced the new Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, which “will elevate conflict prevention as a core civilian mission for the State Department.”

    Also Monday, the White House announced Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough joined Special Envoy for Sudan Princeton Lyman on a visit to Sudan and South Sudan (November 20-21). In Khartoum, both discussed the crises in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. In Juba, the U.S. officials addressed the same crises and the need to respect the sovereignty of Sudan.