This Week in Washington - April 13, 2012

    13 April 2012

    DOMESTIC POLICY MATTERS

    Congress is in recess, returning April 16th.

    Budget.  Senate Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) has announced plans to mark-up a budget resolution next week.  Such a mark-up would run counter to earlier statements by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) that a budget resolution is unnecessary this year because the Budget Control Act already set a discretionary spending cap for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013.  Chairman Conrad’s announcement came after the Senate Parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, issued an opinion that the Budget Control Act does not prevent the Senate from considering budgets offered by individual Senators.

    House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) and Ranking Member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Maryland) defended their  cybersecurity legislation  on Tuesday from comparisons to the stymied Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).  However, Ranking Member Ruppersberger acknowledged that the legislation is currently being modified to address some privacy concerns.  Also on Tuesday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) unveiled a new student loan website that allows college-bound students to compare tuition, job placement and student loan default rates among multiple schools.  A public trustee for the Medicare and Social Security programs released a study on Tuesday suggesting that the 2010 health care law will not reduce the deficit as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated, because the CBO allowed the double-counting of cost-saving provisions in the law.  Both the CBO and top White House officials have disputed the study’s claim.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and members of the wireless industry announced an agreement Tuesday to bolster safeguards against cell phone thefts.

    Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Wednesday asking his administration to “reaffirm” its “pledge to transparency, openness, and accountability by committing to withhold from issuing any economically significant or controversial ‘midnight regulations’ after the current fiscal year ends.”  At the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank's annual conference in Washington D.C. this week, Chairman Fred Hochberg responded to Ex-Im’s recent critics by calling the Bank part of the country's "economic security."  The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Apple and several publishing companies on Wednesday over an alleged agreement to raise and fix e-book prices.

    The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released two reports on Thursday – one presenting the potential for up to $1 billion in taxpayer savings on crop insurance if Congress caps farmer subsidies and the U.S. Department of Agriculture roots out fraud and abuse, and a second stating the U.S. Postal Service requires “dramatic changes in its cost structure” to prevent downsizing and service reductions.  The U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday that applications for unemployment benefits rose by 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 380,000 last week.

    Throughout the week, President Obama and key Congressional Democrats spoke out in support of the so-called “Buffet Rule,” which would ensure that taxpayers earning more than $1 million pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes.  The Senate is expected to take a procedural vote on the rule on Monday.  Also next week, both the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold hearings on the recent General Services Administration (GSA) scandal.

    Political News.  Mike Wallace, a longtime contributor to the CBS news program “60 Minutes”, died at age 93 on Saturday.  In a speech in his home state of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, former Senator Rick Santorum announced that he would immediately suspend his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.  Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is now seen as the likely Republican nominee, although former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Texas Representative Ron Paul remain in the race.

    FOREIGN POLICY MATTERS

    Syrian Conflict.  The Tuesday deadline for a ceasefire and implementation of the Six-Point Annan Plan passed without Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces halting the use of heavy weapons or pulling back from population centers.  President Assad said the ceasefire would instead commence Thursday, with Syrian forces maintaining troops in population centers and reserving the right to fire if fired upon.  Earlier this week, Syrian forces fired across the border with Turkey, killing a journalist and some Syrian refugees.  On Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan raised the possibility of invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and calling on NATO to protect Turkey’s border.  The Obama Administration is reportedly reviewing options to possibly establish a buffer zone on the border between Turkey and Syria.  Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) travelled to the Turkish-Syrian border Tuesday to meet with leaders of the Free Syrian Army and visit with Syrian refugees.     

    Korea Developments.  In defiance of international pressure, on Thursday, North Korea launched its purported satellite rocket, which the United States and allies have labeled as a long-range missile test.  While the missile quickly failed, President Obama said the provocative action effectively invalidated a food assistance agreement reached earlier between the United States and North Korea.  Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council ordered an emergency meeting for Friday to consider formal condemnation of North Korea's failed rocket launch.  In South Korea, the ruling conservative Saenuri Party capitalized on late-breaking political momentum to maintain its majority in nationwide National Assembly elections held on Wednesday.

    Iran.  This Saturday, talks are scheduled to commence between the P-5+1 and Iran in Istanbul, Turkey.  On Thursday, Secretary Clinton warned that Washington is "looking for concrete results" from Iran to show it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.  Meanwhile, on Friday, the media reported Iran is concealing the destination of its oil sales by disabling tracking systems aboard its tanker fleet, as Tehran seeks to counter Western sanctions.

    On Monday, President Obama hosted, with Secretary Clinton joining, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, discussing bilateral, regional and multilateral issues.  The Presidents directed the establishment of a new Defense Cooperation Dialogue.  Also discussed was the convergence of positions regarding multilateral resolution of international civil aviation emissions issues.

    Prior to departing the United States to attend the Summit of the Americas events held in Cartagena, Colombia, President Obama delivered remarks Friday afternoon in Florida on the U.S. economic relationship with Latin America.  Meanwhile, already in Colombia Friday, Secretary Clinton attended the following events:  the Americas Civil Society meeting; the launch of the “Connect 2022” Initiative at the CEO Summit; the WeAmericas Womens Entrepreneurship event; a bilateral meeting with Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin; and, later with President Obama, a dinner for Heads of States and Foreign Ministers.

    Africa News.  Last Saturday, the United States extended its condolences for the passing of Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika and welcomed Vice President Joyce Banda’s swearing-in.  Meanwhile, in Mali on Thursday, the military junta returned control of the government to a civilian leader – Dioncounda Traore, who heads Mali’s National Assembly.  Unrest increased this week between Sudan and South Sudan when South Sudanese military forces crossed into disputed territory Tuesday and seized control of oil fields there.  On Wednesday, the State Department said the escalating hostilities between the two countries are “deeply disturbing”.  The African Union said Friday the seizure of the disputed Hegleg oil field is illegal, urging the two countries to avert a “disastrous” return to war.  Vice President Biden met Wednesday with Nigerian Vice President Mohammed Namadi Sambo, discussing counter-terrorism and other bilateral issues and offering condolences for the lives lost in the Boko Haram attacks on Easter weekend.

    On Tuesday, Secretary Clinton held a bilateral meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and later delivered a lecture at the U.S. Naval Academy.  On Wednesday and Thursday, the Secretary hosted the G-8 Foreign Ministers Meeting.  Also this week, Secretary Clinton overrode a hold placed by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) and released $147 million in U.S. foreign assistance funding to the Palestinian Authority.  On Wednesday, President Obama called German Chancellor Angela Merkel and held a Thursday teleconference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  The President met with Saudi Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abd Al-Aziz on Wednesday, affirming the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship; with Secretary Clinton meeting the Defense Minister Thursday.  White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday the United States remains “deeply concerned” about the situation in Bahrain, urging all parties to work together to “address the underlying causes of mistrust”.  This week, House Armed Services Committee Chair Howard McKeon (R-California) expressed concerns that the deal reached last week to give Afghan troops authority over night raids could put U.S. soldiers at greater risk and undercut intelligence gathering.  On Thursday, the State Department acknowledged the Pakistani Parliament has approved “Guidelines for Revised Terms of Engagement with USA/NATO/ISAF and General Foreign Policy.”

    On Wednesday, the Commerce Department issued a new report reviewing the impact of intellectual property rights on the U.S. private sector.  Thursday, President Obama announced his intention to nominate the following individuals to be U.S. Ambassadors:  Jay Anania (Suriname); Gene Cretz (Ghana); Susan Marsh Elliott (Tajikistan); and David Lane (U.S. Representative to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture).