This Week in Washington - February 5, 2012

    5 February 2012


    Budget & Appropriations.  Friday, several senior Republican Senators introduced a plan to delay mandatory cuts to the defense budget through the sequestration process.  Specifically, the legislation endeavors to replace the $109 billion that will be cut in the first year of sequestration with planned savings from a reduction in the federal workforce and an extension of the pay freeze for federal employees initially imposed by the Obama Administration.  House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon (R-California) has introduced a similar bill in the House.  Democrats in both chambers have voiced opposition to the proposals, saying the defense budget needs to bear its fair share of cuts to discretionary spending. 

    Thursday, the Senate voted 96 to 3 to pass the Stock Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, a bill offered by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Senator Scott Brown (R-Massachusetts) that would ban insider trading for members of Congress and their staffs.  The Senate considered several amendments before passing the bill, including one that would have made the current ban on earmarks permanent.  Although that amendment was rejected, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) announced that his committee will voluntarily extend the current earmark ban through Fiscal Year (FY) 2013.  The Senate also rejected a nonbinding resolution by Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) that expressed the sense of the Senate that it should pass a constitutional amendment limiting terms for Members of Congress.  However, by a vote of 60 to 39, the chamber passed an amendment offered by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to require political intelligence operatives to register and disclose their affiliations as lobbyists are required to do.  The bill now heads to the House, where most analysts expect the bill to pass. 

    House lawmakers voted on Wednesday to freeze the wages of federal workers – including Members of Congress and their staffs.  On Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee approved by unanimous vote a two-year reauthorization of the mass transit title of the transportation bill.  The same day, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee marked up and approved, by a party-line vote, a four-and-a-half-year, $260 billion transportation reauthorization.  Also on Thursday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee questioned Attorney General Eric Holder for the sixth time about documents related to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ terminated “Fast and Furious” operation.  On Friday, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation announced it will revise a new policy that effectively barred the organization from funding Planned Parenthood, after a public backlash to its earlier announcement to cut grants to the organization.  In his weekly address to the nation Saturday, President Obama called on supporters of his mortgage reform proposal to pressure Congress into passing the bill; the President unveiled the package Wednesday, which the Administration claims will benefit approximately 3.5 million homeowners. 

    A Congressional Budget Office report released Tuesday predicts the federal budget deficit for 2012 will top $1 trillion for the fourth year in a row, although the official number – approximately $1.1 trillion – is smaller than recent years.  Meanwhile, the Department of Labor announced Friday the U.S. economy added 243,000 jobs in January, with the unexpectedly large number contributing to a decline in the unemployment rate from 8.5 percent to 8.3 percent – the lowest level in three years.  The number of jobs added in January and the drop in the unemployment rate propelled the Dow Jones industrial average to jump more than 130 points on Friday, closing at its highest level since before the beginning of the global financial crisis in 2008.

    2012 U.S. Elections News.  Indiana Representative Dan Burton (R), who has served in Congress for nearly 30 years, announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election to his Republican-leaning seat in 2012.  Tuesday, Democrat Suzanne Bonamici won the special election to replace former Representative David Wu in Oregon’s 1st District.  With approximately 46 percent of the vote, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won the Florida Republican Primary on Tuesday evening.  Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich came in second, with approximately 32 percent of the vote.  On Saturday, Governor Romney won the Nevada Republican Caucus with approximately 50 percent of the vote; Speaker Gingrich finished second with approximately 21 percent.  Turnout declined from 2008 levels in both states, which are expected to be heavily contested in the general election.  North Carolina Representative Heath Shuler announced Thursday he will not seek re-election in 2012.  The third-term Democrat faced a difficult re-election campaign due in part to redistricting. 


    Syrian Conflict.  On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in New York City at the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) meeting on Syria, after issuing a statement Monday condemning the escalation of the Syrian regime’s “violent and brutal attacks on its own people,” urging UNSC members to support the Moroccan UNSC resolution that mirrors Arab League’s plan for political transition in Syria.  In Munich Saturday, the Secretary met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, where State Department officials said they had a “vigorous” debate over the UNSC resolution on Syria.  Secretary Clinton also addressed the Munich Security Conference participants Saturday, characterizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as “a tyrant” who is brutalizing “his own people.”  Also Saturday, President Obama issued a statement condemning Bashar al-Assad for the murder of hundreds of Syrian citizens Friday; citizens President Obama said were peacefully commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Hama massacre orchestrated by al-Assad’s father.  The President called on the international community and the UNSC to “work to protect the Syrian people from this abhorrent brutality.”  Later that day, in a 13-2 vote the UNSC resolution backed by Western and Arab countries failed, with UNSC permanent members Russia and China casting “No” votes.  Over the weekend, Syrian government troops continued to shell the opposition stronghold of Homs.

    Iran.  Thursday, the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee approved, by voice-vote, a draft bill co-sponsored by panel Chair Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) and Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-Alabama).  The bill would expand sanctions on entities that participate in uranium or petroleum joint-ventures with Iran, among other provisions.

    On Friday, Secretary Clinton, Defense Secretary Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain (R-Arizona) and Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) were in Germany to attend the 48th meeting of the Munich Security Conference.  Secretary Clinton met Saturday morning with Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, discussing energy diversification and concerns about selective prosecutions of political opposition members, such as detained former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.  The Secretary later held bilateral meetings with leaders from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Spain, Egypt and Italy.  On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Panetta said the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan could end in 2013, to the general surprise of Washington’s European allies.  At Saturday’s morning session of the conference, Secretary Panetta clarified the United States hopes to hand over the combat lead to Afghan forces in 2013 but confirmed U.S. commitment to the Lisbon framework, which calls for a likely combat role for NATO forces into 2014. 

    Egypt.  Senate Armed Service Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Ranking Member John McCain said Tuesday a withholding of military aid to Egypt is now on the table, given Egypt’s continued harassment of U.S.-funded NGOs. Meanwhile, a high-level military delegation from Egypt arrived in Washington and met with State Department officials Thursday to discuss the bilateral relationship, including the ongoing NGO issue. 

    On Tuesday, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee held its annual hearing on current and projected national security threats, which included discussions on nuclear nonproliferation and countering cyber threats.  At the hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called for the reauthorization of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in its current form.  During the hearing, Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Senator John Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) called for Congress to pass a comprehensive cyber security bill, which has yet to be formally introduced in the Senate.  Also discussed in some detail is the need to redefine the parameters of the U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relationship.

    On Monday, President Obama held a bilateral meeting with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.  Secretary Clinton also attended the President’s bilateral meeting and held a separate meeting Wednesday with President Saakashvili.  While in New York City Tuesday, Secretary Clinton held a trilateral meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.  Back in Washington Wednesday, the Secretary held separate bilateral meetings with Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov and Singaporean Foreign Minister and Minister for Law K. Shanmugam.  On Thursday, the State Department announced Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson will lead an Energy Trade Mission to Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana February 6-17.  On Thursday and Friday, Acting Special Representative for Global Food Security Jonathan Shrier welcomed global food security representatives to Washington to discuss efforts to advance the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative.  Also Thursday, the White House Press Secretary issued a statement “strongly” condemning the bombing by Sudanese Armed Forces of civilian populations in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states in Sudan.     

    This week, President Obama announced his intention to nominate the following individuals:  Bill Baer to be Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division (Justice); Heidi Shyu to be Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology (Defense); Joseph Jordan to be Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget; and Marcilynn Burke to be Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management (Interior).