This Week in Washington - June 15, 2012

    15 June 2012


    Budget/Debt Ceiling/Sequestration.  Last Friday, House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon (R-California), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), and House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) wrote President Obama to urge a review of the projected effects of sequestration on the military.  On Monday, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Montana) announced he is “making progress on a detailed tax reform proposal that will attract bipartisan support.”  Also on Monday, 56 House Republicans sent a letter to President Obama demanding that the next debt limit increase be accompanied by equal spending cuts.  Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Michigan) said Tuesday that if Congress passes legislation to avoid sequestration, the Pentagon should still cut $100 billion out of its budget over the next decade.  Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf explained Wednesday that the practical effects of sequestration will begin this year, stating that “[u]ncertainty about the resolution of fiscal policy early next year is weighing on the economy….”  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey stated Wednesday that sequestration would “translate into a different deterrent calculus and potentially, therefore, increase the likelihood of conflict.”

    Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 Appropriations.  While the House was out this week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS)-Education and Financial Services and General Government spending bills on Thursday.  Both bills passed by a party line vote of 16-14 after the Committee considered a large number of amendments.  On Friday, the Committee released its reports for both bills.  The amended text for these spending bills is still pending.

    On Friday, President Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced a major immigration policy change.  Effective immediately, certain illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States under the age of 16 and have resided in the country for more than five years, do not present a risk to national security or public safety, and meet several other criteria will be considered for relief from deportation.  Qualifying undocumented immigrants will be eligible to receive deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal, and will be eligible to apply for work authorization, although they currently lack a path to U.S. citizenship.  House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said the Obama Administration’s action “blatantly ignores the rule of law that is the foundation of our democracy.”

    Following an announcement on Monday that House Republicans will pursue contempt proceedings against Attorney General Eric Holder next week for not turning over all requested documents in the “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking program, the Attorney General testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday and faced questions about the Department of Justice’s investigations into “Fast and Furious” and reported national security leaks.  Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) called on Attorney General Holder to resign, while Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) introduced a resolution calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the leaks.  On Thursday, Attorney General Holder sent a letter to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-California) offering “an extraordinary accommodation” of additional documents and a briefing to Congressional investigators about Fast and Furious.  As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) seeks a bipartisan deal to finish consideration of the five-year, $969 billion farm bill and related amendments, thirteen Republicans joined Democrats Wednesday to vote (65-33) against cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, while 15 Republicans joined a majority of Democrats to preserve (50-46) the sugar support program.  Homeland Security Chair Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) said Wednesday that he is confident the Senate will take up cybersecurity legislation before the August recess.  Meanwhile, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) and Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) have drafted a compromise between the two competing Senate cybersecurity bills, which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce currently opposes.

    Political News.  Secretary of Commerce John Bryson notified President Obama on Monday that he is taking a medical leave of absence following a series of traffic accidents over the weekend caused by a seizure.  Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank is now acting Secretary of Commerce.  On Tuesday, Ron Barber (D), an aide to former Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, won a special election over Republican Jesse Kelly to take over the competitive southeastern Arizona seat previously held by Giffords, who has been recovering from an assassination attempt in January 2011 where Barber also was shot.  The Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it will not seek to retry former North Carolina Senator John Edwards (D), after a jury deadlocked last month on five campaign finance-related charges against him. 


    Syria.  Early this week, the United Nations essentially acknowledged Syria is in a state of “civil war,” with at least 14,000 people killed as fighting between opposition forces and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad continues.  On Thursday, the media reported the U.S. military has completed contingency planning for potential Syria-related operations.  Meanwhile, Western countries continue to press the U.N. Security Council for a Chapter 7 mandate or passage of a new resolution that would make the Annan Peace Plan legally binding.  On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Russia for reportedly planning to re-supply the Assad regime with attack helicopters.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded that Russia does not supply Syria with equipment “used to fight against peaceful demonstrators….”  On Thursday, Senator Cornyn and six other Senators introduced a resolution calling on Russia to suspend arms sales to Syria.

    Egypt.  In response to Thursday’s decision by Egypt’s constitutional court calling for the dissolution of the country’s parliament, based on the allegedly unlawful election of one-third of its members, Secretary Clinton said Friday, “There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people.”  Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Foreign Operations Subcommittee and the author of previously-waived conditions on U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt, added, “The recent decision by the Egyptian court obviously throws into question the future of the transition.”

    Iran.  On Monday, Secretary Clinton announced U.S. sanctions exceptions for seven economies – India, Malaysia, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Turkey – for significantly reducing their volume of crude oil purchases from Iran.  Meanwhile, efforts are reportedly underway to bridge the gap between the House (H.R. 1905) and Senate (S. 2101) versions of new Iran sanctions measures.  These discussions are not expected to conclude before the P-5+1’s third round of negotiations with Iran next week in Moscow.

    Vice President Biden condemned Wednesday's wave of attacks across Iraq, which his National Security Advisor, Tony Blinken, visited Wednesday and Thursday.  Blinken met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussain al-Shahristani, and Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani, urging Iraqi leaders to alleviate current tensions.  On Wednesday, six Republican Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) urged President Obama to withdraw Brett McGurk’s nomination as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, citing McGurk’s “poor judgment” during his previous service in Iraq.

    Thursday, Secretary Clinton addressed the Washington-hosted Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Forum to enhance Africa’s trade infrastructure.  Also Thursday, after a four-month process, the White House released the Obama Administration’s new U.S. Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa, which includes four pillars:  (1) strengthening democratic institutions, (2) spurring economic growth, trade, and investment, (3) advancing peace and security, and (4) promoting opportunity and development.  The strategy specifically commits the United States to escalate its efforts on the first two pillars.

    On Tuesday, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Montana) introduced a bill (S. 3285) to extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Russia and repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment.  The Chairman wrote a letter to Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), Senator McCain, Senator Lieberman, and Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), affirming support for also advancing and the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act (S. 1039), a bill the four Senators have said is crucial for PNTR to move forward. 

    Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) called for renewing an import ban against Burma to ensure pressure on the Government to continue to implement democratic reforms.  On Thursday, Senator McCain called for heeding Burmese Parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi’s plea to not allow their oil and gas companies to enter into new partnerships with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). 

    Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chair John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) held two hearings to hear concerns surrounding possible Senate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.  Chairman Kerry emphasized his support for the treaty and contrasted current Senate Republican resistance to a Treaty that the Nixon, Regan, Bush I and Bush II Administrations supported.  Six senior military officials testified in support of ratification, echoing previous testimony by Secretary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.  Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Admiral James Winnefeld, Jr., testified the Treaty is “yet another tool” to strengthen the United States’ hand in addressing existing and future potential sea disputes.

    On Thursday, the Senate confirmed the nomination of Mari Aponte to be U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador.  This week, President Obama announced his intention to nominate Michael Kirby to be U.S. Ambassador to Serbia.  President Obama spoke Thursday with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which supported an OPEC decision that day to maintain current oil production targets, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India.