DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS
Budget & Appropriations. Congress has yet to pass nine of the twelve Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 appropriations bills, and the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on December 16. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) told the Republican Conference Wednesday that he would reject a long-term CR, preferring passage of a nine-bill omnibus package by December 16 or a short-term CR followed by passage of an omnibus package. On Wednesday, Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) and Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) introduced legislation to permanently ban earmarks, which are already banned in the House, but the Senate’s moratorium on earmarks is set to expire in 2013. Under the law passed to raise the debt ceiling – The Budget Control Act of 2011 – both the House and Senate must vote on a constitutional balanced-budget amendment before the end of the year. As previously reported, the House rejected such an amendment before Thanksgiving. The Senate now plans to vote on two versions of the amendment, one proposed by Democratic Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) and another proposed by Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). In the House, Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) and Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) proposed bipartisan legislation on Wednesday that would provide the President with the authority to request the rescission of earmarks, duplicative programs, and other non-entitlement spending from appropriations bills.
After several days of floor debate, the Senate passed the FY 2012 National Defense Authorization Act Thursday evening by a vote of 93 to 7. Attempts to remove bipartisan terrorist detainee language opposed by the White House failed. The bill will now be sent to Conference Committee. Late Thursday, the Senate refused to move forward with either the Democratic or Republican version of a payroll tax cut measure. The legislation proposed by Democrats paid for the tax cuts with a “millionaires’ surtax” opposed by Republicans, while the legislation proposed by Republicans would have paid for the tax cuts by freezing federal workers’ pay and cutting other discretionary spending. On Wednesday, thirty-seven Republican senators introduced a new bill aimed at forcing the Obama administration to move forward with the Keystone XL oil pipeline project. Congressman Denny Rehberg (R-Montana) introduced a companion bill in the House Thursday.
On Monday, a federal judge in New York struck down a $285 million settlement Citigroup reached with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), calling the settlement “neither fair, nor reasonable, nor adequate, nor in the public interest.” American Airlines and American Eagle’s parent companies said Tuesday that they are filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Also on Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced the settlement of a privacy complaint with Facebook, clearing the way for a rumored public offering next year. On Wednesday, Central Banks around the world – including the U.S. Federal Reserve – announced they will take coordinated action to ease strain on the financial system, propelling the Dow Jones industrial average to its biggest gain since March 2009. On Thursday, House Judiciary Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) announced he is prepared to begin contempt proceedings against Secretary Janet Napolitano if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not comply with his Committee’s subpoena for immigration enforcement information. In a joint statement on Thursday, AT&T and T-Mobile announced the withdrawal of their application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to merge. On Friday, President Obama announced a nearly $4 billion investment in energy upgrades to public and private buildings over the next two years to improve energy efficiency and create jobs. The Department of Labor announced Friday the unemployment rate dropped to 8.6 percent in November from 9 percent in October. In line with expectations, the country added 120,000 jobs.
Political News. Last Friday, Texas Democratic Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, announced he will not run for re-election in 2012. On Monday, sixteen-term Democratic Congressman Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), Ranking Member of the House Financial Services Committee and sponsor of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, also announced he will not seek re-election in 2012. In the wake of allegations of a thirteen-year marital affair, Republican Presidential Candidate Herman Cain told senior members of his campaign on Tuesday that he is reassessing whether to remain in the presidential race, with a decision expected this weekend. Meanwhile, Republican Presidential aspirant and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich surged in the latest national Rasmussen poll to take the lead from former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS
Iran & Syria Sanctions. Late Thursday, during floor debate of the Defense Authorization bill, the Senate unanimously passed (100 to 0) an amendment sponsored by Senators Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) to sanction the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and those doing business with the bank. The Administration argued against the Menendez-Kirk Iran amendment, saying the measure could alienate foreign countries and raise oil prices. Senator Menendez countered saying the amendment allows the implementation of the sanctions to be waived by the President if the world economy may be disrupted. Thursday, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon for a semiannual U.S.-Israeli strategic dialogue, discussing Iran and changes in the region. After an Arab League deadline passed with no response from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Arab League imposed unprecedented sanctions against Syria on Sunday, which included freezing assets in Arab countries and a travel ban for senior Syrian officials. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also welcomed the European Unions’ new economic sanctions against both Iran and Syria. Royal Dutch Shell announced Friday it was ceasing operations in Syria, in compliance with sanctions. Also Friday, a special U.N. Human Rights Council session endorsed a report released earlier this week by the independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria; a report the State Department says catalogs the Assad regime’s “brutal abuse.”
Vice President Biden arrived in Iraq Tuesday, saying his trip marks a “new beginning” in the bilateral relationship as U.S. troops prepare to depart December 31. On Thursday, Vice President Biden travelled to Ankara, meeting with President Abdullah Gül and urging Turkey to impose further sanctions against Iran. Tomorrow, Vice President Biden will meet with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul.
Wednesday, Secretary Clinton was in Busan, South Korea, where she provided the keynote address at the fourth high-level Forum on Aid Effectiveness. The Secretary emphasized the U.S. approach to foreign assistance need to shift to a view of aid as an “investment” that is targeted to “produce tangible returns.” Meanwhile, on Thursday, the State Department released an updated Foreign Assistance Dashboard (www.foreignassistance.gov), an interactive website that details U.S. foreign assistance by country. Secretary Clinton travelled to Burma Thursday, where she met with President Thein Sein and encouraged the government to maintain momentum on reforms. The Secretary also said the government needs to release all prisoners of conscience, focus on national reconciliation, encourage political and civic activity, and protect universal human rights. Secretary Clinton later met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who supported Secretary Clinton’s Thursday announcement the United States will allow the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to consider resuming business with Burma.
On Monday, President Obama hosted a summit meeting with the leaders of the European Union and held a bilateral meeting Tuesday with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder warned European NATO members Friday about the impact of the budget sequester on the U.S. Defense Department, calling on NATO countries to share more of the NATO workload.
Last Friday, newly appointed, interim Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri of Egypt unveiled a new Cabinet. On Monday, Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since Mubarak’s ouster resulted in a high voter turnout, with the Muslim Brotherhood winning the most votes. In response to the election results, the State Department said Friday, “… the key here is not necessarily who wins elections, but how they would then govern.”
Secretary Clinton called Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar last weekend, expressing condolences for the NATO coalition airstrikes that reportedly killed 24 Pakistani troops. Pakistan ordered the United States to vacate a drone base and blocked supply routes for U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan.
Last week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to withdraw from the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START); a hallmark achievement of the U.S.-Russia relationship “reset.” Thursday, Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) placed a hold on Mike McFaul’s nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to Russia, seeking written assurances Russia will not be provided any classified information on the missile defense system in Europe. On Friday, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the Administration is concerned with a Moscow court’s decision to fine an independent election monitoring organization – Golos.
This week, President Obama announced his intention to nominate the following: Jonathan Farrar as U.S. Ambassador to Panama; Phyllis Powers as U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua; William Todd as U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia; and Joseph Macmanus as U.S. Representative to the United Nations and to the International Atomic Energy Agency (with Ambassador Rank). The White House announced next Wednesday Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will visit the White House, with Canadian press reporting a possible announcement of details on the Beyond the Border initiative.